This week’s column comes from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on March 22, 2015.
How would the Chinese have treated the native population if they had colonized the New World before the Europeans? Would the Incan and Aztec empires have survived longer? Would the natives have been enslaved?
I’m assuming that this hypothetical encounter would have happened during the period of the Yongle Emperor’s sponsorship of massive seagoing voyages under Admiral Zheng He 鄭和 (who did undertake several huge expeditions that reached the east coast of Africa). I don’t think colonization would have been the intent. They were more interested in flying the flag and forcing de jure recognition of the universality of the Ming emperor’s rule. They fought little and conquered no one, and planted no colonies in any of the many lands they visited on the total of seven voyages between 1405 and 1433.
But let’s say, for whatever reason, that a significantly sized Chinese landing party was forced to stay in the Americas, and say they encountered the Aztecs and their Triple Alliance first. One thing that would be almost certain: There would have been horrific die-offs of natives because of diseases. This would probably have been even worse than with the arrival of Europeans, as Chinese had lived with even denser populations, lived in even closer proximity to livestock like pigs and poultry, and brought much livestock with them on their voyages. They certainly would have caused, inadvertently, much human suffering from diseases like smallpox, to which the Chinese had already long built up immunities.
They doubtless would have treated the natives — those who survived, in any case — as curiosities. They would likely have seen very close parallels between the cosmologies of the Mexic peoples of Meo-America and their own ancient cosmologies: The “Tree of Life” notion, the cosmic axis joining a tripartite cosmos of Heaven, Man, and Earth would have been, for instance, a very familiar theme. They would have recoiled at the practice of human sacrifice among the Aztecs. They didn’t have either the horsemanship, the arquebuses, or the steel that Cortez had, and don’t think they would have tried to take on Aztecs in their numbers.
I suspect they would have seen quite a bit about the inhabitants of North America that reminded them of themselves. Physiologically, they would have noted the resemblance to other peoples of Asia: lack of body hair, straight black hair, epicanthic eyefolds, little or no facial hair. They might have easily theorized that these people were descendants of the people sent east during the Qin in search of the isles of immortality by the First Emperor of Qin.
Zheng He, who was a eunuch, brought no women on his journeys, so there might have been extensive intermarriage between Chinese sailors and Aztec women, who in any case were presumably more numerous due to the endemic intertribal warfare and the practice of sacrificing, daily, young Mexic warriors.
Chinese doubtless would have believed themselves to be culturally superior, and would have set about trying to instruct the natives in their language and rites. They would have made an attempt, in other words, to sinicize them. Who knows what the outcome would have been.
Kuora is a weekly column.