We live in the age of globalization. Within an average American household, one can find goods produced in China, India, Germany, France, Thailand, England, and many other countries thousands of kilometers away from the USA. At the same time, many US products find their buyers in Europe and Asia. Globalization touches all aspects of our lives – we have free access to information from all over the world. The labor markets of rich countries are overflowing with migrants from poorer parts of the world wanting to make a living. Even the goods themselves are often produced and assembled in different places.
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The whims of global trade are motivated by many factors, ranging from simple supply and demand to political atmosphere and economic benefits of certain locations. This became possible with the advances in technology, transportation, and communication, which enabled large companies to control their expansive logistics chains from the comfort of their offices. However, it was not always like this. The roots of globalization can be found in ancient history when caravans filled with silks and spices braved long and dangerous journeys to deliver their goods from China to the markets of Byzantium (Antunes and Fatah-Black 19). The purpose of this paper is to analyze the historical tendencies towards globalization in the 8th and 9th century and compare them with globalization trends happening nowadays.
The first contact between the West and the East happened in the year 325 BCE, when armies of Alexander the Great, after conquering the Persian Empire, managed to come in contact with India. Gerosia, the city where Alexander the Great and Chandragupta signed the peace treaty between Macedonia and India, became the very first link in a route that connected the Mediterranean Sea, Persia, and Southern Asia ((Antunes and Fatah-Black 34). However, at that time, prospects for trade were slim due to distances and imperfections in naval technology. The foundation for the famous Silk Road, which would become one of the most famous trade routes many centuries later, appeared only in the 1st century CE, in order to facilitate trade between China and India. Active trade with Europe did not happen until the rise of the Song Dynasty in China, which brought the country to a new level of economic, cultural, and technological development (Antunes and Fatah-Black 42). This provided an incentive for the medieval economy and successfully linked China and Europe by land and by sea.
In order to understand the significance of the Silk Road, one must first imagine the state of European trade in the 9th-10th centuries. In the Medieval period, the majority of available commodities were produced domestically. Even within the borders of the same country, traveling between cities on horse took days, and sometimes even weeks. Traveling by water was quicker, but required ships and was associated with danger. This limited trade a great deal, as trading common goods was not profitable enough to solicit long and dangerous journeys.
Thus, the first merchants that traveled between Europe and China dealt in luxury items, which cost a fortune and were enough to make up for the risk and length of travel. Chinese merchants offered silks, while spices were brought in from southern and central Asia. Other goods included gold and jewelry, art, tapestry, and various technological implements, such as paper and gunpowder (Antunes and Fatah-Black 70). From Europe, merchants brought high-quality weapons and steel. It is easy to notice a correlation – the goods traded between Europeans, Arabs, and Chinese were those that would not waste with time, were highly valuable, and have no competition in the foreign market.
These examples of modern-day globalization were more simple and primitive when compared to various ways in which the market exploits the availability of numerous markets and communication technology. Trade between the Europeans, Arabs, and Chinese was motivated by simple rules of supply and demand. Labor migration was largely nonexistent, save for certain highly skilled specialists – engineers, smiths, teachers, scientists, and doctors (Antunes and Fatah-Black 61). The rest of the population remained largely immobile and attached to their respective towns and villages, thus unable to participate in the fluctuations of the labor market to the same degree as it is now.
Lastly, foreign capital was never used to penetrate foreign markets during the establishment of the Silk Road. Due to various prejudices, restrictions, and costs, merchants from Europe and the Middle East were not able of establishing or owning their own silk production facilities and were largely at the mercy of local producers and the prices they established. Because of this, the goods these traders brought back to Europe cost a fortune, being available only to the richest castes of the society – the feudal lords and their ladies. One could say that the first global market ever to exist was the luxury market.
Medieval globalization trends advanced with the advancements made in ship engineering and construction, geography, and communication. Larger ships were capable of hauling greater amounts of goods at quicker speeds, enabling the trade of less luxurious items and even food supplies. By the end of the 16th century, globalization heralded the emergence of sea-born empires, which pioneered the majority of major sea routes known today, and laid the foundation for the modern global economy.
Antunes, Catia, and Karwan Fatah-Black. Explorations in History and Globalization. Routledge, 2016.