To fully appreciate the miracle of Christopher Columbus and his unlikely discovery of the New World, we have to start a century earlier and on the other side of the world. We have to start in China and consider the extraordinarily advanced civilization the Middle Kingdom had then become.
While the European continent lay in squalor and decay, the Dark Ages full and ripe, with Western culture still retarded in almost every intellectual area, China had become the most powerful nation on earth. While the kingdoms of Europe squabbled with each other, fighting brutal skirmishes that made up a series of meaningless wars, the Middle Kingdom had been united into the world’s largest empire. While the capitals of Europe built a few modest castles and called them masterpieces of architecture, China built the Forbidden City, still one of the wonders of the world. While the royalty of Europe gathered a few hundred books and a couple of dozen scholars and called it a university, scientists in China were discovering and advancing scientific theories beyond anything the West had yet imagined, including sunspots, equatorial astronomical instruments, solar winds, novas, solar and lunar eclipses, Halley’s Comet, a calendar year to within 26 seconds and sea navigation using terrestrial navigation tools and techniques. While monks throughout the Western kingdoms were copying scripture by hand, China had already put to use paper and movable type; at a time when the total library of King Henry V of England (1387–1422) consisted of six handwritten books, the emperor of China commissioned 2,000 scholars to produce an encyclopedia with 4,000 volumes. When most of Europe was burning whale oil, China was searching for, discovering, and exploiting natural gas. While millions died in Europe from smallpox, China had developed and deployed a method to inoculate against the disease. Engineering, medicine, mathematics, transportation, warfare—China excelled in them all.
Perhaps there was no area of expertise more important to the future of the world than oceanic exploration, and in this, as in almost everything, China excelled. Their ability to navigate and explore the oceans was unparalleled. At a time when Europe hardly dared wander beyond the Straits of Gibraltar, China was building fleets capable of circumnavigating the world.
That raises a very important question.
Why didn’t China discover the New World? Why didn’t they settle the Americas? Being so much more advanced than the Europeans, why didn’t they colonize the Western hemisphere, spreading Chinese people, language, and culture, including Oriental religions and philosophy, to this sphere of the world?
Every piece of evidence indicates that they should have.