2016 No.2
Event: 2016 Institute of Chinese Studies Luncheon II: "Evolution of Western Geography: The cultural and historical origins of the Age of Discovery in the 16th century"
At the ICS Luncheon on 8 March 2016, the honorary senior research fellow of the Institute of Chinese Studies at CUHK, Dr. Chen Fong-ching, shared with us his latest research findings on the topic of "Evolution of Western Geography: The cultural and historical origins of the Age of Discovery in the 16th century".

Chen Fong-ching, Institute of Chinese Studies

Professor Chen Fong-ching obtained his BA in Physics at Harvard University and his PhD in the same discipline at Brandeis University. In 1966, he became lecturer at the Department of Physics of CUHK, and in 1977, he was appointed senior lecturer. In 1980, he became Secretary of the University, and in 1986, he was chosen as Director of the Institute of Chinese Studies. Professor Chen Fong-ching is an outstanding scholar and administrator of this university. He has served CUHK for almost 50 years and is now Honorary Senior Research Fellow of ICS, Senior College Tutor of United College and Professor Emeritus of the Department of Physics. In 2004, he was awarded the Zhu Kezhen History of Science Visiting Professorship by the Institute for the History of Natural Sciences of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The main subject of Professor Chen Fong-ching's talk was the historical and cultural causes of the advance of the Age of Discovery in the West. The modern era in Western society began in the 15th and 16th centuries and was marked by four events: the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the diffusion of printing techniques since 1460, the discovery of the Americas in 1492 and the Protestant Reformation of 1517. Apart from the discovery of the Americas, the other three events were strictly related to the development of the European continent itself. The fall of Constantinople was a great defeat for Europe, whilst printing and the Reformation transformed it from within. The discovery of the Americas signalled the beginning of the European march for expansion and its full-fledged assault on the world, which completely changed the global arrangement. From this perspective, the latter held an even greater meaning for the world. Professor Chen emphasised that the Chinese admiral Zheng He had already been to the West seven times between 1405 and 1433, well before the European Age of Discovery began. Moreover, Zheng controlled a greater fleet and had much more available wealth than what later Westerners used for similar enterprises, but he was unable to leave the same revolutionary mark on the world. Why? Professor Chen tried to answer this question by investigating the cultural and historical origins of the Age of Discovery.

He pointed out that the historical causes of the Age of Discovery can be roughly summarised as seven major elements that date to different eras. The oldest reasons are Westerners' drive to undertake risky long-distance voyages and expeditions and their highly developed geographical knowledge. Elements from medieval times included the use of the compass and the emergence of maritime cartography, which were influenced by the expansion of the Mongolian Empire to Europe. At that time, Europeans began to admire the wealthy East and wish to establish commerce with the East, which stimulated their greater passion for long-distance navigation. The modern factors are closely related to the advance of the Muslim Empire toward Europe. Its inhabitants tried to expel Muslims, started the Reconquista and continued attacking Muslims while spreading Christianity. At that time, the Muslims controlled Northern Africa and profited greatly from the trade of gold and black slaves, which prompted the envy of Europeans. Finally, the contribution of Henry the Navigator, the Prince of Portugal, to long-distance navigation should not be underestimated. These seven factors contributed greatly to the initiation of Portugal's sea expeditions to Western Africa and Southern Asia and to Columbus's discovery of the Americas.

Ancient Westerners' long-distance navigation, expeditions and spirit of adventure can be explained by the commercial nature of their society. Since antiquity, emigration, military expeditions and colonisation have been traditional characteristics of Western society. There are many records of Western military expeditions and travels in antiquity, such as the Homeric Hymns. These poems about long maritime voyages represent the foundational literature that constructs the Westerners' spirit. In addition, ancient Western historical records describe at least five other perilous voyages. The earliest include the expedition of the Phoenician fleet around Africa ordered by the Pharaoh in 600 BC, which confirmed that Africa is surrounded by water; the second was carried out by the fleet led by the Carthaginian king Hanno to colonise western Africa; the third was the maritime expedition of Marseilles from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Arctic Circle in 400 BC; the fourth was Emperor Alexander the Great's military campaign to the East, which was also the Europeans' first major long-distance expedition in history, and they came to know for the first time of the existence of India, which resulted in the Pharaoh dispatching many missions there; finally, in 1291, the Italian Vivaldi brothers (Ugolino and Vadino) tried without success to circumnavigate Africa to reach India. These historical records all show that Europe has a strong tradition of travel and exploration. Similar records in Chinese history are comparatively few. One example is the narrative of King Zhou Mu's tour of China and his legendary encounter with Xi Wangmu. Yet King Zhou Mu differs from Ulysses because he led a great army for the tour and was respected everywhere he went, whilst the latter embarked alone on a dangerous expedition. Along with Xu Fu's travel in the southern seas, the expeditions of Zhang Qian and Ban Chao are among the few recorded long-distance travels of ancient China.

Western geography has a long tradition. The second natural philosopher of the West, Anaximander, was a geographer. He envisaged the Earth as a free-floating cylinder, with human beings living on one side of it. Two hundred years later, at the time of Plato, Westerners realised that the Earth is a sphere, and thus emerged the idea of circumnavigating it. Longitude, latitude and geographical positions became objective standards, and Western geography began its rapid development. As soon as 150 AD, Ptolemy discussed the projection of the surface of a sphere on a plane in his eight-volume Geographia; he also developed two methods of projection that were highly influential on the later development of global cartography. Moreover, in Alexandria, Eratosthenes precisely measured the circumference of the Earth. All this geographical knowledge proved beneficial for the later long-distance expeditions undertaken by Westerners. There are numerous examples of ancient Chinese geographical documents, including the Yugong 禹貢, the Shanhai jing 山海經 and the Hanshu dili zhi 漢書地理志. Maps reporting accurate measurements appeared as early as the Warring States period (475-221 BC). These maps became an important part of Chinese tradition. However, these maps merely focused on dry land, mountains and rivers and did not pay attention to coastlines and foreign lands. Generally, China lacked an appropriate study of the overall shape of the globe, so astronomy and geography were based only on empirical knowledge.

Medieval elements that contributed to the Age of Discovery included the use of compasses and maritime guidebooks and the Europeans' interest in distant places, as excited by Marco Polo's travel accounts. By 1270, the Mongols had conquered vast territories in Central Asia as well as the Southern Song territories, allowing Europeans to reach Eastern Asia. Thanks to this opportunity, Marco Polo was able to reach China. His travel accounts became a sensation among Europeans and were widely circulated. These accounts are basically an encyclopaedia of Asia with a focus on geographic records. In the descriptions of the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty, Marco Polo dedicated a great deal of attention to the size and wealth of the Chinese empire, and he also dealt with Korea, Japan, the Indochina Peninsula and Java. These reports expanded the Europeans' worldview and imagination, stimulating their fascination with the distant wealth of Asia. China too had its share of records preceding Marco Polo's, including Faxian's Foguo ji and Xuanzang's Da Tang xiyu ji, but their travel journals excited Chinese fascination and imagination only on a religious level. In addition, the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty brought to the West a very important object: the compass. Soon after its arrival, Europe drew the portolan charts, nautical maps with practical purposes that depicted a large quantity of coastal toponyms. On the eve of the Age of Discovery, in 1459, the famous Fra Mauro Map already included Japan, Ceylon, the Yellow River, the Yangzi River, Southern Africa and the oceans surrounding the corresponding three continents. The compass and portolan charts were two fundamental instruments in the promotion of Western long-distance seafaring. In comparison, the maps produced in China accurately represented only the mainland, but were extremely general regarding the coastal area and foreign lands and were consequently not very useful for navigation.

The origin of modern Western long-distance seafaring is closely related to the European reaction to the fight against Islam, and it played an important role during the Reconquest. Between 622 and 750, Muslims occupied all of the Middle East, Northern Africa and the majority of Spain. The Spanish Catholics tried to drive the Muslims out of the country, starting the long-term Reconquest. This reclamation of the Iberian peninsula (790-1385) and the foundation of Portugal (1249-1385) could be accomplished only after the Muslims had been expelled. The attack of the Muslims dominating Northern Africa continued after the establishment of Portugal, then under the leadership of Prince Henry. With great effort, he succeeded in building many strongholds in Western Africa (1415-1460) and began to explore the coastal region, inspiring Europeans to travel toward Southern Africa. This was the foundation of the European Age of Discovery. After the death of Prince Henry, Portuguese sovereigns continued to direct overseas exploration (1460-1515), and during this time, Marco Polo's accounts were becoming popularly known. The interest of the Portuguese in the trade of black slaves and gold on the west African coast broadened to encompass the commerce of spices from the Far East, resulting in the further expansion of overseas exploration. At the same time, the astronomical coordinates of Ptolemaic geography were being effectively used for navigation. In 1488, Bartolomeu Dias discovered the Cape of Good Hope, and in 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. What has been described above summarises the interwoven system of events that triggered the maritime expansion of the West. In comparison, Zheng He's voyages were merely a tour of inspection because China did not link oceanic voyages to the prosperity of its empire. Western seafaring was exactly the opposite. It became a means of expansion and a fundamental means to establish its imperialism, which had a tremendous effect on the history of the world.

(Note: The edited excepts above from Professor Chen's talk has not be proofread by Professor Chen.)

Back to Issue
Interview with Professor Yuan Xingpei
Young Scholars' Forum in Chinese Studies 2016, jointly organised by ICS and CUHK–Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Asia-Pacific Centre for Chinese Studies (APC)
Event: 2016 Institute of Chinese Studies Luncheon II: "Evolution of Western Geography: The cultural and historical origins of the Age of Discovery in the 16th century"
Event: 2016 Institute of Chinese Studies Luncheon III: "Imagining the Entitled Middle-class Self in the Global City: Guo Jingming's Tiny Times and the New Shanghainese"
Event: CUHK–Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation Asia-Pacific Centre for Chinese Studies (APC) Public Lecture by Professor Ho Hon-wai
Event:《良渚玉工》學術成果發布會暨良渚文化玉器與中國古代玉器工藝學術座談會, co-organised by Centre for Chinese Archaeology and Art
Event:「玉器與王權誕生」研討會, co-organised by Centre for Chinese Archaeology and Art
Event: Ancient Chinese Scripts Workshop and Ancient Chinese Scripts Family Workshop, Art Museum
Event: "Fun with Cantonese" Book Exhibition and Talk Series, T.T. Ng Chinese Language Research Centre
Event: Academic Events, T.T. Ng Chinese Language Research Centre
Event: Academic Lectures, Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture
Event: Documentary Screening Series, Co-organised by Research Centre for Contemporary Chinese Culture and Universities Service Centre for China Studies
New Publications
Exhibition: Amazing Clay: The Ceramic Collection of the Art Museum (From 1 April 2016)
"Amazing Clay: The Ceramic Collection of the Art Museum" Lecture Series, Art Museum
Editorial Board Committee
Past Issues
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