Since 1400, the world history has seen major transformative events—helpful discoveries and inventions, many political upheavals, and some really great ideas. Yet, there was a turning point that did not happen, and with which the world as we know it today would have been entirely different, had that actually taken place.
Admiral Zheng He
In the 1440s, a half century before the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, a huge fleet of enormous ships, approached the forested American coast, which could have been the moment when the hemispheres of the globe would have united, in that great historical encounter.
On the deck of the largest ship, the flagship of that huge navy, directing the moment of global history, stood a huge man, the Chinese admiral Zheng He, towering over others on the ship. More than his stature was his unflinching, focused, stern gaze. He commanded the vast Chinese naval expedition, to lay claim to a new world, bringing the Americas into the cultural orbit of the magnificent Ming dynasty, ruled by an Emperor who enjoyed the favor of heaven.
Spread of Chinese Civilization
The ancient civilization which China represented, would overspread the North and South American continents, in a dynamic process to shape world history. Eventually there would have been no need for the smaller European kingdoms like Portugal, Spain, or England to explore the oceans or for a Christopher Columbus.
In the centuries that would follow, as it evolved, it would depend on the fortunes of the Ming dynasty in China. An emerging global civilization would be founded on the basis of Chinese Confucian values. But that did not happen, that turning point did not turn.
Defining a Turning Point
A turning point marks a decisive moment which shapes later developments. If it doesn’t happen, or happens differently, history takes an entirely different course. These turning points of modern history are the crucial moments that radically changed how vast parts of humanity viewed their world, and when their entire worldview was transformed, the mental map of the world was reconfigured.
The impact of a turning point is seen in technological changes like the invention of the printing press or the atomic bomb, or in political history like the establishment of nation-states as essentially the default mode of world politics, or in social transformation like the abolition of slavery or the recognition of women’s right to vote.
Learn more about the most important historical turning point of modern times.
Impact of a Transformed World
Not that the thinking of every living person at that time changed in the same way, or that everyone saw a newly transformed world in exactly the same terms. Human beings are too complicated for that as the older worldviews still persisted and lingered.
In spite of the repeated shock of the new, human creativity in adapting to new worlds was astonishing and ultimately hopeful. Thus, the turning points were not the same as merely the greatest events of history, but were the moments of true change in worldview!
This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
What Is a Modern World?
The turning points shaped the modern world since 1400, raising a key question about what ‘modern’ is, as opposed to the ancient or premodern? What is ‘modernity’? Modernity is a slippery concept, because, what is modern now will soon become the past, as time marches forward.
The word ‘modern,’ derived from the Latin word modo meaning ‘just now’, in distinction to the past. Yet the concept of ‘modern’ is often applied to an entire historical period. Attributes of modernity include the growth of technology, autonomy of the individual, a recourse to experimentation, and science instead of trusting the dictates of tradition. It includes new concepts of popular sovereignty and equality.
In a fascinating history entitled, The Birth of the Modern World, historian C.A. Bayly added another quality, arguing that, “an essential part of being modern is thinking you are modern. Modernity is an aspiration to be ‘up with the times.’ It is a process of emulation and borrowing.” Modernity as a process involves a mindset that stresses novelty and breaks with the past.
Authority of Change and Progress
The term ‘turning point’ was first used in English in 1836. An awareness of change is ultimately what marks modernity. What makes an authority legitimate and trustworthy? The key defining attribute of modern life is the concept of change as progress, and thus a source of authority. In a modern society, change and progress possess authority. They are looked to, invoked, and hoped for.
Learn more about the trauma and the loss created for Europeans.
‘Progress’ in Traditional and Modern Societies
In traditional societies, where time-hallowed ways were authoritative, newness was not a recommendation, or a merit. Something that was new was, immediately suspected. Traditional societies in the past, were never unchanging or frozen, but were marked by the reverence for tradition. When something new was introduced, it would be presented as a revival of an earlier practice, a positive return to the original “good old days”. By contrast, in modern societies, progress is sought in the new, that which is cutting edge, the next big thing.
Common Questions About Modern History
The Chinese Admiral Zheng He is best known for commanding the vast Chinese naval expedition, to lay claim to a new world, bringing the Americas into the cultural orbit of the Ming dynasty.
If Zheng He had discovered America, the ancient civilization which China represented, would have spread over the North and South American continents, in a dynamic process to shape world history and there would be no need for the smaller European kingdoms or for a Christopher Columbus.
Some of the turning points in history are the invention of the printing press, atomic bomb, of political history like the establishment of nation-states, social transformation like the abolition of slavery or the recognition of women’s right to vote.
A turning point is a decisive moment which shapes later developments. If it doesn’t happen, or happens differently, world history takes an entirely different course.