Jun 09

Another perspective on looking at China’s past

Written by No99 on Wednesday, June 9th, 2010 at 12:00 pm
Filed under:Analysis, General |
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Regarding the topic of China’s long and rich history of science and technology.

Here is one perspective to look at it. Only a few of the points here were made by me, but a lot of information I got from elsewhere and people who study this topic. I will try my best to put what I know so far understandable and straight to the point.

If we were to strip down all the activities and devices we use for our modern lifestyles down to their basic components, one can see that there aren’t as many original inventions as most people assume. Patent numbers and journal publications are just one aspect of technology. Though they are important, it’s mostly working on an accumulation of works of the past, making little improvements along the way. Most scholars of this field, define modern technology as the substituting the usage of human muscle and animals for power and how far is the reach and accessibility of technology to the general population. If we took those definitions into account, then the reality is that the modern lifestyle was more recent, only happening in the 20th century. In China’s case, one can argued that modernization happened in the last few decades. The foundations were laid for centuries along with many discoveries, but only a few members of society benefited throughout most of world history.

With that in mind, looking at the basic components, one can say that China before adopting the modern lifestyles, had all of the original inventions in their lives, except for one item; the harnessing of electricity. That was the only physical thing left. Some original inventions did originate from China, some came from other places of course, but many people believe that a lot of it was created independently of other civilizations. However, what made the develop world was the accumulation of all these original inventions and using it with the knowledge of the natural world together to make something remarkable. Knowledge of the natural world was what China needed more of, they had some ideas but it didn’t go as far as other parts of the world. There are many reasons why but that’s kind of the missing secret ingredient you can say.

One thing I need to mention is that many articles and books tend to say China outpaced the world in the arts and sciences. The reality is that throughout China’s “verified” recorded existence, it was a contemporary (equal) to whoever was the most powerful civilization at the time. That’s how Ancient China is viewed as if we were to look at it from the global framework of world history. Some of the technology was quite efficient, or advanced one can argue, and some of it was not quite as sophisticated. The level of disparity was the same throughout the world. Life for the average person on Earth was very hard and cruel throughout most of history.

In many ways, there wasn’t a whole lot of difference between China and the West until the last 150 years. A lot of people like to use China vs. West comparison because that was the most recent and profound. South Asia and the Muslim world (which included a lot of people who were not Muslim or Arab as well) was much closer than China in having some version of an Industrial Revolution. The Arabs had the first “de facto” scientific revolution. The renaissance and enlightement were important eras but it took a while for Europe to actual global dominance. By the time that happened, many people in the great powers had the benefit of having all those experiences of the past and knowledge gather from people all over the globe, while contributing with their own creativity.

One side note to think about. A lot of the maps we see of colonization involved shades of red, blue and other colors to note the dominion. In reality, they should have look more like a bunch of dots and only the coasts would be colored as actual rule was very hard to establish and most power was still in the Natives.

A lot of people often assume that China fell behind or stagnated regarding technology. From what we know, it appears that what really happened was China was moving along the same pace. Progress in subsequently, and people just kept doing the same things as they were. This pace was similar to just about everywhere on the globe. If we reflect here a bit, the last two centuries were the real anomaly of technological development. There wasn’t a lot to choose from regarding Chinese and conventional medicine before the mid 1800s. A lot of the engines that help power a lot of machines for everything else took off in the late 19th to early 20th century. Even in the infamous Opium wars, the notion of winning due to superior technology was less than half the story. There was a lot of collaboration, a lot of manpower on the British side included many native Chinese and other Asians. The Chinese also use firearms as well. The battles themselves were kind of skirmish-like and many seem to have been won mainly through logistical problems. A lot of things were going on at that time. Four decades later when groups in China fought against the French, the same exact weaponry was use with the French slightly updated, and the Chinese manage to hold them at bay in several points. Though eventually defeated.

Ancient China had many unique attributes but what makes it stand out even more than the others are the geographic location, a distinct language and organization of its society that wasn’t common in other places. It’s mainly due to those distinguish markers is what makes China stand out even more and has people thinking the Chinese of the past came up with a lot of ideas on their own. The historical records do show if they got anything from other places outside China’s realm, notably the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Portugal and even the nomadic tribes of the steepes. They might not be as impartial, precise or detailed as our current documents, but that’s how the past was like everywhere. This is what makes investigating history exciting in a sense.

Another thing to think about is we need to put aside generalizations if people want more clarity. Any generalizations made by Chinese people themselves or others. The whole Chinese superiority is quite infamous but we do need to look at it from another perspective. First, it doesn’t take a lot or any reason(s) to believe yourself as better than others. Unless one travels a lot, has many interactions with outsiders or can read, most people were basically living in their “own worlds”. For the average person in China and those in power or could read, the attitude of superiority wasn’t any more or less than what other powerful empires or complex societies had. Although I also think that the arrogant attitude was a factor in preventing progress in China, they also had a lot of other issues which were more significant than that.

Everyone probably has heard about Zheng He’s story, but in my opinion, there were other opportunities present after that. For example, if the Jesuits had sent more people to reach the general population instead of intellectuals serving the court, it might have inspire more Chinese to venture out on their own. Or something more controversial, the Taiping rebels might presented the fastest route towards modernization during the turbulent times. As they inspired a lot of women to their cause, if we look back, a lot of social movements succeeded in part of freeing up this gender to pursue many activities. No doubt, women warriors would have pushed their communities. However, that is all just speculation of what ifs.

It’s kind of hard to really say what China was like in the past. Civilization, Empire, sub-continent…we would have to use definitions on that scale to describe China, but it doesn’t seem complete. It does seem that many people use the the Tianxia (under heaven) idea and applied it to their environment. Kind of the Ancient Greeks and their known world. Except that the Greeks and others in the area saw themselves as one part out of many and the Chinese saw everyone else as related somehow. Other than the written script, everything else seem pretty different among the Chinese. Overtime did other items like architecture, currency, clothing, etc. did they share some similarities, but overall there’s quite a lot of variety.

Reflecting on the past, in many ways it is quite impressive to see how China didn’t fully collapse. This is also what makes a lot of people think that the methods the Chinese of the past used seem fundamentally sufficient. If we were to look at Chinese history from a global perspective, it seems that either China could have taken the opportunities spread from the late Ming dynasty to early Qing to have gradual change. Or this; Since daily life was saturated under the same system of authority, it would have require a social movement, similar to those in the 1930s that led to World War 2, to really shake China. As history shows, it was the latter that happen. If change is gradual, it’s called development, if change happen in a very short frame of time, its a revolution.

It kind of makes sense in my mind why it took so long for China to change considering what happened in the past and choices many people made or not take. That’s reality.

If my mini-essay doesn’t make sense in any way, please let know. I do want to clear up any misunderstandings or questions people might have. I admit I could be off from my assessment. There’s no citations as I gather information from many different books, journals and small conversations with people, as well as what I’ve experienced in the science arena. I actually shortened a lot of what I wrote. This is only 1/4 of what I had. There were a lot more examples, details and other perspectives to think about, but I believe this should be a decent outline.

There are currently 3 comments highlighted: 69190, 69217, 69225.

66 Responses to “Another perspective on looking at China’s past”

  1. TonyP4 Says:

    Hi No99. It is nice for a change. Hope you have more articles coming.

    * Chinese should not use the big 4 ancient inventions to boost the nationalism. They’re ancient. We do not have a lot to offer in the last 300 years. However, when the basic needs are satisfied, we’re offering more and more to the world. The Expo, Olympics, aids to African countries, importing commodities…The world including China benefit.

    * If China did not have the corruption like spending all the money intended for Chinese navy in the summer palace, China should be able to defend itself better in 250 or so years ago.

    * The improvements in the last 30 years are just amazing.

  2. No99 Says:

    Hi TonyP4

    There was quite a lot I want to talk about regarding China’s past but I didn’t want to jump around different topics and sound too incoherent in my words. I spent quite a lot of time learning and reflecting on this topic, almost a decade you could say.

    I kind of want to summarize my points saying that with the definition of modern technology, China of the past “probably” had the most efficient “pre-modern” technology in the global frame-work for most of its existence. Also, because of many factors like how the governing system operated and saturation of daily life, (and how the world at large was) it made sense why China of the past had so many issues but couldn’t really acted on them until much later in time. It also kind of makes sense why people say China jumped ahead remarkably within one generation. We don’t really need nationalistic propaganda or sugar-coating of history, the reality is already interesting enough.

    Nowadays, I can not think of anything in the field of science, engineering and other technology related fields that doesn’t have one Chinese national contributing to its creation or improvement. In a sense, those areas are beyond national borders.

    It’s true with all the improvements made are amazing, but there is so much work to be done. Not just with China but many countries as well, since a lot of issues aren’t confined to just one place.

    I stated in the post of how it was hard to define China of the past. How it was similar to the Ancient Greeks and their known world except the different people in the area saw themselves as one part of many but the Chinese saw everyone else related somehow. Gradually, everyone else in the world had this “being one part out of many” social development except for China. Until the very end.

    I think that’s one of the challenges for human beings in general. Finding your own place in the world.

  3. No99 Says:

    Let me clarify something. The “one part out of many” mentality was and is there in China. The main difference is that the world view was and in a few ways still is limited. Due to various reasons. Sort of like saying China was a world within a world. Kind of.

  4. ChinkTalk Says:

    Solidarity with a United Chinese Diaspora.

    Chinese people should not be afraid to protest and protect themselves from this kind of discrimination.

    What happened to democracy? Human Rights?

    “PARIS – A protest against violence targeting the Chinese community in Paris ended on Sunday with demonstrators being tear-gassed by police.

    Related readings:
    Chinese protest in streets of Paris

    About 8,500 people turned out on the streets of city’s eastern Belleville district, where they called for “coordinated and concerted” action by the authorities against a growing number of attacks.

    Trouble broke out as the demonstration was ending when scuffles erupted between a group of around a dozen youths and 50 young demonstrators, police said.”


    We should organize a protest to support the Chinese in Paris.

  5. pug_ster Says:


    What do you expect? If this happens in China, you will see a wave of condemnations from Western Governments. But since it happened in some Western Country, they don’t consider this incident important.

  6. ChinkTalk Says:

    pug_ster, I have yet to see any of this reported in the Western media.

  7. pug_ster Says:

    Actually, it is:


  8. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To CT:
    “Chinese people should not be afraid to protest and protect themselves from this kind of discrimination.”
    —no they shouldn’t. Which is why the protest was organized to begin with. And…gasp…they were allowed to do so…in Paris…in broad daylight. Pretty neat concept, eh?

    And what is there to condemn? A small group of trouble-makers got violent towards the end, and they were dispersed with tear gas. Were you expecting the army and tanks?

    Also, I’m not sure how much coverage you were expecting internationally about a protest by 8500 people. After all, Paris does allow this sort of thing.

  9. No99 Says:

    I don’t know what these recent comments have to do with the thread.

    I understand the statements but it’s not related to the topic.

  10. me Says:

    Seriously, some medium-sized rally with a little bit of fun&action towards the end is nothing that needs to make front news at CNN or france24.

    But back on topic (though what, exactly, is the topic?), I think you are missing a few things when saying that the only important invention the Chinese did not have is electricity. For example, the steam engine is basically synonymous with the industrial revolution, and I guess Europeans and possibly Americans made quite a few related inventions in mechanics and metallurgy from the late 18th century onwards.

    I believe you are also missing out on the scientific developments (as in mathematics, physics, astronomy) in Europe from the renaissance on. Even if they may not have immediately led to military or economic advantages, they still laid the groundwork for the industrial age. You mentioned the Jesuits: did they bring any Chinese scientific innovations (as opposed to literary classics or geographical knowledge) to Europe, or only European innovations to China?

  11. No99 Says:

    Yeah, I jump around a lot with this post, many apologies for that.

    It was part of a bunch of ideas I got from several discussions about this topic from a few other forums and sites I participate in. I took out a lot of them and tried to form one commentary piece for fools mountain.

    I did mentioned about the lack or not enough knowledge of the natural world as a significant factor. That’s pretty much what science is, with mathematics as its partner sort of speak. I know that modern technology is a little more complex than what I posted, and I took a more laymen’s perspective regarding methods and tools from the developed world. Nearly all the “basic functions and core components” existed in the pre-modern China and other Ancient societies i.e. places with a long history. The usage of electricity was something very recent and IMO the last original method humans came up with, so far (by original, I mean something that hasn’t been created before nor dependent on existing basic functions and parts). I took apart a simple steam engine design myself and believed that the function and processes wouldn’t have been “extremely” mind-boggling to Ancient minds and anyone of those societies could have build a “rudimentary” version to accomplish its core task. That may or may not be the actual definition of invention. Just my humble opinion.

    The point of my post, I had hope, was to adjust some common generalizations about China’s past. Considering how most people and places were like throughout world history, China as a whole was not any more backwards or extremely superior than the other regions throughout its verified existence. It was unique in many ways like so many other places. Instead of saying the ways of the past was advanced, a more accurate definition would be that it was sufficient. China didn’t really stagnated, fell behind or got complacent, in reality, it probably was going along it’s usual pace of occasional progression and other changes. Until the rest of the world was moving along a similar direction, either through colonial expansion or internal and external pressures, so in a way, it was only in the last couple of centuries did China finally push itself more. There’s like a dozen different reasons people have come up with why China or any other ancient place didn’t push itself to the point we did now, considering what they had and knew. It was enough for some spark. The foundations for our developed world was laid for centuries by many people besides Europeans, but only very recently did people actually saw and lived the modern lifestyle as we know now.

    The Jesuits are a story on its own. According to what scholars know, it was kind of a two way street…transferring knowledge from Europe to China and vice versa. It was still going on in some levels all the way to the peak of the British empire from what I’ve read. However, due to logistical reasons and issues within Europe, sometimes what the Jesuits brought to China was outdated. They were also very focused on impressing the court and higher levels of society. Had it been more towards the general population, the possibilities of what could have happen would have been endless, IMO. There’s more to this, but I’ll save it for later when I have the time to make what I know more concrete.

  12. No99 Says:

    Actually I think I gave a bad description for what I think is originality. It’s subjective and a little faulty since everything we do is making improvements on past works.

    I kind of regret submitting this post. Main reason is I try to lump too many thoughts together. I’m fairly confident in my viewpoints because of my background and exposure to the science and engineering arena and long time interests in Chinese history. My opinions are also shared by several people who are into the two fields, however there aren’t that many out there. In person and online. A lot of the scholars and students who study the two subjects together tend to keep a lot of their ideas to themselves, for academic and legal reasons I’ve heard. Sometimes, I’m not sure how off some of my details are but hopefully the more people I get interested in thinking and discussing I too can get more clarity.

  13. Steve Says:

    @ No99 #12: I liked your post. Because the subject matter was so broad, it was probably difficult for our bloggers to focus in any one particular part. You might want to narrow the subject matter and break it up into several parts so the comments can share more commonality. I agreed with most but not all of what you wrote but wasn’t sure where your focus was heading. Don’t regret submitting this, there’s a lot of good stuff here. Anyway, that’s one man’s opinion. 🙂

  14. No99 Says:

    Hi Steve,

    I’ll keep that advice. Indeed it is hard when I lump too many points together for such a broad subject.

    My main thing is that everything about China when explained to non-Chinese is always tied in with history. Depending on the individual’s personal interest, most of the time, it’s hard to get away from that subject. After spending a good decade on sifting through the information, I kind of form some of my own opinions (though they happen to be similar to what others found out). I too used to have a romanticized view of the past, not just China but every place in the world. Later on, more like growing up and seeing life for myself, I got more and more in ground with reality.

    Maybe I should do another one regarding the “humiliation of China” period that some people like to bring up regarding today’s issues. How it might of actually been like, sort to speak.

  15. me Says:

    I also think your post is alright. You got more than one poster to reply on-topic, I guess that is successful enough (it would be successful enough for me). I think ‘everybody could have come up with this’ is a bit unsatisfactory. The Chinese did not come up with the steam engine, and while Europe got industrialized, China remained agrarian. Some people might say the computer is not really that hard to invent (once you have relays ..), but would you agree that a country without computers would be ‘more or less’ on the same level as the rest of the world development-wise?

    Also I am curious what scientific results the Jesuits brought from China to Europe. Wikipedia mentions literary classics, and of course they also brought geographical knowledge (like, China=Cathay) and possibly some knowledge of new plant and animal species and the like. But was there anything in maths,physics,astronomy,chemistry?

  16. perspectivehere Says:

    These essays by Professor Nathan Sivin at the University of Pennsylvania are classics.

    “Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China–Or Didn’t It?” (1982)

    “Science and Medicine in Chinese History” (1990)

  17. No99 Says:

    Hello everybody,

    I understand the doubts here. I had them too, and although I didn’t exactly say so and so Ancient society actually created the steam engine, I did mentioned that the functions and parts were available. Maybe that was confusing and unsatisfactory. The piston, cylinder, sliding valve, rods, exhaust, boiler, etc. These parts and their usage wouldn’t have been too mind-boggling for pre-modern minds. The earlier models of the steam engine had several issues, but later on with some experimentation did it improved, and overtime with the application of chemistry and physics, we got to where we are today.

    I’m sort of basing these ideas of mine on my own experiences. I participated in research for Diabetes and pH buffers, for my school. I also had a lot of exposure, mainly for some business transactions but also for education, to manufacturing plants. Several friends and relatives are engineers, physicists and science instructors, and I had spent much time with them and the work they can let me see (nothing top-secret or confidential per se). While it’s complex, I can break down most of the procedures and application of tools (the purpose for each part and equipment) to a very rudimentary level, one that is decent enough for a child or someone with not much formal education can understand and work with. A lot of methods are really crude…imagine a giant kitchen and garage put into one. Some people’s main objective in the lab is to cut off heads of mice for example or to keep a constant temperature. How they do that, by applying ice whenever it needs to be cooled. However, the knowledge is what matters in a lot of cases, and people who could interpret data are very valued. It’s a little hard for some people today to imagine life without them, as a lot of the work that won Nobel prizes are being taught in primary education and some people are already a few generations removed from the time before mechanized tools.

    I’m not an historian, I don’t make a living from it. Classical Chinese is really hard. However, from an overall perspective, I can see all the methods and parts that existed in the past, or could have been used to serve the same purpose as another tool today. From my mind, I can see almost everything possible except for the usage of electricity. I hope that helps a bit, and I’m aware it is subjective opinion.

    From what I read, Geometry and Trigonometry was a couple of areas. In terms of tools, some weapons were brought in. They also helped with Cartography. It’s not a one way street and both sides, the Jesuits and Chinese intellectuals weren’t always that far apart. I have this book, but it’s not casual reading.


    China stay agrarian, but most of society was, even when the Steam engine rolled in. Change took a little while, which is why from what I can tell, the average person was effected greatly and could participate in more activities due those innovations around the turn of the 20th century. It wasn’t always equal distribution of benefits. On a side note, I have read about statements saying China essentially stayed in the Bronze age until the second world war. The overall picture might seem that way, but of course there were changes which happen slowly overtime. It’s faulty logic because it ignores a lot of details and exceptions which paints a very complex picture. Doesn’t take into account how reality was. If that was the case, then Europe was essentially living in Antiquity all the way until the 17th century and Americans having living like they were since the 1920s. Just a word, I’m just stating some generalized examples, doesn’t mean I actually believe them.

    Oh yeah, as for the last comment, I actually did contacted Professor Sivin for some questions. I managed to contact all the way to the Needham Institute in Cambridge, UK and another person in Hefei, China. One piece of advice I got was don’t take Academic authorities too seriously and us “amateur” historians are just as well-depth as the professional who make a living. That’s the nature of this field.

  18. No99 Says:

    In terms of chemistry and physics….there’s a lot of work based on assumptions. That’s pretty much the point of theories and experimentation. However, we keep working on those assumptions to create something remarkable like a uber-adhesive material or an object that is very thin and dense. The thinkers and tinkers today don’t know everything for sure, but it doesn’t stop them fro trying to do a lot. A scientific mindset isn’t very confident, and shouldn’t be to allowed for more possibilities.

    A lot of Ancient societies in the past may not have known everything, nor was it recorded accurately. However, it doesn’t dismiss what they accomplished despite such limitations.

  19. No99 Says:

    Someone with a similar interest as mine gave me a link. I thought it would be nice to share, if anyone is interested.


    As for the situation involving Jesuits, I think the most significant work they did in China was that they helped confirm a lot of ideas and suspicions many Chinese thinkers were having at the time. The most significant work they brought back to Europe was more accurate knowledge about Chinese society. That’s the main theme. In terms of knowledge, you can probably read upon the history of negative numbers, but I’m throwing that from the top of my head. It’s just something I remember reading a while back, not sure if it’s due to the Jesuits.

    Most of the ideas and inventions the Chinese were known for were transmitted by and during the Islamic Golden Age and Mongol Empire. The last two eras were very important sections in world history, so it’s worth checking them out. It’s kind of from those time periods where the perception of China being very “advanced” sprouted and still lingers. Consider this that the Muslims were the first to gather almost all the ideas and contraptions from all three continents of the “old world” and added their own points. It’s kind of easy to put out many misconceptions of sensational images of different places with all that in mind.

  20. No99 Says:

    Hi me,

    I posted a lot of my ideas on the CHF site, my name is Gan.

    Here is the main thread I’m in.


    There’s plenty of people in there that disagree with me and are more knowledgeable. I learn from them as well. We all have our reasons for such ideas and don’t accept anything at face value. Don’t worry, I and many others don’t believe any non-sense of the Nationalistic/ethno-centric views or China romantics (like Menzies sort of) have. I think it might be useful so I don’t have to repeat everything to this site or else it might end up as another mash of different ideas.

  21. r v Says:

    I would agree that the Scientific Revolution most likely did occur in China. The only difference is, the Scientific Revolution in China did not have wide spread impact on Chinese society as it did in Western Europe, thus it cannot be claimed as a true “revolution”.

    I will elaborate. One of the important Scientific Revolutions in Western Europe was the Newtonian Revolution. It was notable, because Newton was born in the same year as when Galileo died, but Galileo was prosecuted by the Church for espousing the “Sun-centered Universe” model, but Newton was praised for having similar views.

    But what was astonishing was that the Newtonian Revolution was not even largely due to Isaac Newton’s work, because by Newton’s birth, Western Europe has already largely accepted the “Sun-centered Universe” model. Thus, in reality, Western Europe was ripe and ready for Isaac Newton’s work on Physics and mathematics.

    In contrast, in China, many great discoveries stirred no great debates, nor great controversies. They were simply mere novelties that made no great influence on society.

    In comparison, the upheavels of Europe over the debates of science, pitted various factions of intellectuals against one another. There were great suffering by Galileo and others who went against the prevailing wind of their times, but there were also great triumphs.

    Isaac Newton might not have been that Revolutionary in his theories, but his impact was massive. Western Europeans seemed to tap into the energy of his discovery, and began to emerge more confident that anything was possible. It was about the same time that great strides in military technologies also happened in Western Europe, such as improvements in artillery making techniques, metallurgy for weapons.

    What history has taught us is that it is not who invents or discovers something that has a revolution. The Revolution happens where the idea has the most impact. The Greeks had great many new theories and ideas, but the ideas had virtually no impact on Greek society. While Achimedes claimed that “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth,” Unfortunately, that boast did not have much effect across Greece.

  22. Josef Says:

    r v, what you are saying is that it is not so much the technical discoveries, but rather the society which makes a technical revolution possible. I actually agree to that, but it brings us close to the principles of the cultural revolution: Some supporters argued that only by destroying the system a new and better mindset can be planted into the society.
    So, when did the technical revolution, or its mindset, take place in China – before or only after the cultural revolution?

    Wukailong answered me in
    that “Confucianism has made a big comeback”. I would say, as the technical revolution did not stop recently, we can rule out that his teachings were the main reason for the lack of the technical revolution during the Qing dynasty.
    However, challenging authorities and fundamental rules certainly is an ingredient for scientific progress which might have been lacking in the past in China due to the principles of how the society was built up.

  23. Wukailong Says:

    One theory which has some credibility, in my opinion, is that the foundation of Europe’s technological and industrial revolution was laid back in the 15th century with all the competing states. If you couldn’t get approval or economic support by the rulers in one state, you could always try another, which is exactly what Columbus did. In China, on the other hand, when the rulers nixed further expeditions, there wouldn’t be another Zheng He.

    In the same vein, you might notice that the most interesting philosophical periods of both China and Greece took place when there were a number of states at war. I’m not advocating something like that today, but obviously competition between various groups or countries spurs innovation.

  24. Rhan Says:

    I thought capitalism is the major push?

  25. No99 Says:

    Hi guys,

    There are several different theories, and all the points you all gave are on the ball actually. They’re all credible. One thing I could add is the lack of a stable network with others outside East Asia. As to why this didn’t happen, there are another dozen or so theories as well.

    I think one factor to think about is industrialization was and is different in each country and society, within both Europe and Asia. Quite different with the two American continents and elsewhere. Some of it due to their geography, some of it due to their history or foundation. So, it really wouldn’t be much of a surprise that China would have needed it’s own route to move forward.

    In terms of pre-modern lifestyles (if we were to define it by being less dependent on human/animal labor for power, substantial application of ideas and accessibility of goods/services and benefits to the general population), in a way, China was probably as far as anyone could get, “relatively speaking”. By the 20th century, “almost” everyone else in the world was accepting some similar standards and people kind of have to figure out how and what China could do to get into the game sort to speak.

  26. No99 Says:

    I stop myself from commenting further on the 20th century, what did or could and should have happen. One reason is that I don’t know that much or enough to form an opinion. Another is that I can empathize the uncomfortable thoughts, accuracy of events and different eye-witness perspectives when discussing anything of recent memory.

  27. r v Says:


    I personally believe that Confucianism is not anti-technology, but rather historically, Confucianism did not evolve properly in time to accommodate scientific advances, and Confucianism was too literally interpreted by traditional Chinese scholars.

    For example, Confucius was quoted as saying, there are 3 essential elements to the survival of a state, the least important is Military Arms/strength, the 2nd important is Food, the most important is the people’s faith in the ruler.

    Now, the strictest interpretation of that was that the Government must ensure plenty of all 3 things, military strength, Food, and People’s faith. However, when Confucius said this, there was very little technological innovation in China. Confucius could not have anticipated development of commerce or science.

    So, if Confucius was alive today, might he not have used “commerce” instead of “food”? I think so. I draw a historical comparison to the Venetian Republic, which was ruled by 1 Doge, who appointed 1 minister of war and 1 minister of trade. In Venice’s perspective, Trade was one essence of the state’s survival, instead of “food”. Naturally, I believe, modern scholars must reinterpret Confucius more broadly, and we will find that much of what Confucius said is still applicable.

    *As for your question of when did China begin to have the technological revolution, I believe I would attribute it to CCP’s broad educational initiatives, even when it was in Yanan. I believe, the Chinese people could not have changed our mindsets about technologies until the people had some basic level of educations across the population.

    Even in Yanan, much of the old mentality of superstitions were being purged through broad education, and there were much technological innovation at the grass root level. There were stories of how the CCP and the PLA personnel used innovations to build home made weapons due to lack of supplies. I do not believe the CCP and the PLA could have survived long in Yanan had not been for these innovations. Once the PLA won the Chinese Civil War, it was simply a matter of time before the broad education initiative was promulgated across all of China, and in time, the people simply became accustomed to technologies and sciences.

    * In comparison, the technological revolution in Europe could be said to be coinciding with Europe’s liberalization of education system from Church controlled to be sponsored by the State and the Merchants. In removing education from the monopoly control of the Church, scientists and inventors were free to change the mindset of the students to become accustomed to technologies and sciences.

  28. Steve Says:

    @ No99: It took a little while for this thread to get going but now it’s become a good discussion. Shows you there was a lot of meat on those bones! 😛

    I think everyone’s made good points looking at this from a few angles. I’d like to bring up two more:

    1) The Closing of China: Up to and during the early Ming dynasty, China led the world in technological brilliance. She had some competition from the Mediterranean world but after the fall of the Roman empire, China was so far ahead of the rest of the planet in terms of inventions and technology that the race wasn’t even close. I’m actually fascinated with this subject and have read a few books about it. Even most Chinese don’t realize how many innovative and unique inventions came from China! If anyone is interested to learn more, for your kids I’d start with The Chinese Thought of It by Ye Ting Xing. For the rest of us, I’d recommend Ancient Chinese Inventions by Deng Yinke and The Genius of China by Robert Temple but distilled from the famous Sinologist Joseph Needham’s works.

    However, once the Xuande Emperor died and was replaced by the Zhengtong Emperor, China closed up, burned the treasure fleets and stopped most trade and communication with the outside world. Starting from this time, the innovation that had been China’s birthright slowly but surely slowed to a trickle. Meanwhile, the Persian, Arab and European civilizations were taking technology they had picked up in China and continued to develop them. As Wukailong wrote earlier, the abundance of competing nationalities and frequent wars certainly played a part in developing technology, especially that of warfare.

    By the early 1700s after the death of the Kangxi Emperor, the English arrived but China never saw the danger at her door. Japan did, and advanced her technology quickly but more importantly, acknowledged that she was behind the curve. The Chinese emperors, living in a sheltered environment, never fully developed an understanding of what they were up against until it was too late. From that time until today, China has been behind the other nations in terms of developing new technologies and inventions.

    Today I think it’s more of tweaking the educational system and intellectual property laws to encourage innovation. If given the opportunity, it’s been my observation that Chinese society is very inventive. In fact, I noticed that many Chinese I knew were brilliant at “thinking outside of the box” and would use whatever was available to make things work. The best description of this talent is what is known as “Yankee ingenuity” and was one of many cultural traits that reminded me of my own country.

    2) The Discovery of Coffee in Europe: Before the Europeans brought back coffee from the New World, they would wake up in the morning with watered down wine and continue to drink alcohol all day. The water supply was not very pure so there wasn’t a lot of choice in the matter. The Chinese drank tea which has a caffeine component to it and were more alert. So for centuries, Europe stumbled around in a half-drunk stupor. But after coffee shops were established and people started their day with caffeine rather than alcohol, suddenly Europe’s rate of discovery and invention exploded. This is when the Enlightenment started and I’d attribute coffee to playing a larger role than people might think, though it was only one of many factors.

  29. r v Says:

    I would add that IP protection is not a necessary component in generating innovation. Necessity is often sufficient motivation for innovation, and better than greed. Greed, in fact, can stifle in innovation. Consider that many great innovations came about in time of war. Why? Necessity of survival.

    Necessity is the mother of invention. As the old saying goes. What is needed in the new modern era, is simply a new disciplined mindset.

    Realize that not all new ideas can be profitable. Some new ideas, great new ideas, will change the way we all think, perhaps even new forms of government. Such new ideas should not be protected for the profits of individuals, but open for entire societies.

    Profits only give incentive for new ideas that makes more profits. Gadgets may make our lives easier, but does not make our nature better. Perhaps the next revolution of ideas is a Revolution of Human spirit.

    Perhaps we would come full circle with old ideas, like rediscovering new meanings of “democracy”, or Confucianism, or laws. Afterall, isn’t USA described sometimes as a tweak of old Greek and Roman democratic ideals. Sometimes, innovation is not a tweak, but a new way of looking at very very old ideas.

  30. Josef Says:

    r v, I pick out this sentence: “Confucianism was too literally interpreted by traditional Chinese scholars.” to reflect on the impact from the educational system to the technological revolution. So, I am not talking so much about Confucianism itself, but rather the consequences, like memorizing the five classics / four books as the ultimate goal of education. Certainly before enlightenment the Chinese educational system was superior to any other country. But you also mentioned the liberalization of the education system from the Church in Europe, and in an abstract extrapolation – that was not happening in China. This idea is also consistent with your statement that (I quote) the technological revolution in China could be attributed CCP’s broad educational initiatives. I also like this idea much more than attributing it to the cultural revolution. Taiwan did not have a cultural revolution which again is an argument for broad education rather than destroying the system.
    Steve admired the “thinking out of the box” strategy of modern Chinese people- was that always like that? Or was this “thinking” more orthodox, in line with filial piety and only recently changed.

    However, I guess this might be just one piece in the puzzle, like Wukailong’s missing competitors, Rhan’s capitalism or Steve’s coffee.

  31. r v Says:


    It is commonly recognized that perhaps there is too much memorization in the Chinese education system, traditional or modern. But I would argue that such systems do not only produce memorization drones. Afterall, we can look back at the long Chinese history and find some extremely creative poets, painters, and politicians who changed the trend of Chinese knowledge and art.

    Creativity is not necessarily destroyed by memorization. Memorization sometimes make some very creative. (Afterall, it’s not easy to memorize so much. A lot of Chinese students come up with their own creative methods to memorize facts, figures, and methods.) I personally believe that Memorization is a first step of learning, it requires discipline and creativity in itself. It also teaches the moral ethical lesson of hard work paying off and there are no short cuts in life.

    Undoubtedly, the Chinese education system of memorization is very hard work. Many complain about it. But let me share my experiences in the Chinese and Western education systems. I came to US young, after I have finished elementary school in China. In China, in my 1st grade, I was required to do a timed 60 math problems test every morning, which I did terrible in. This was repeated drill for a year. It was not so much memorization, and more like military drill for my brain. I hated it.

    But when I came to US, I immediately found myself faster at math than any kids in my middle school, except for other Chinese kids. People called us smart, but we weren’t, we just had more practice.

    Then, I was enrolled into an International Baccalaureate program (IB), created for the “above average” kids, mostly American kids from upper-middle class very educated families. In studies, I found that they were just as good as me, sometimes even faster than me. And you know what? MANY of them also DRILLED problems as a study method. Practice tests, problems not assigned by teachers, and their own tutors, etc.

    So is the Western education really that different from China? Well, perhaps in one aspect: Western education ALLOWS and gives students the opportunity to fail or be mediocre. But the good students in Western education systems do pretty much the same things as what students in China are often forced to do. Memorize, drill, practice, more problems, more practice, more time spent studying. (Now, there are initiatives in US to INCREASE the average student’s study time in schools, as a way to get better performance.)

    It’s simple, more study time (practice) produce better students. Students learn creativity AND memorized facts by more practices. Without practices, the skill of creativity simply does not develop.

    That said, I do admit that the Chinese education system does not openly reward “creativity” as much as the Western education systems. But I also think that rewarding “creativity” is a highly subjective standard, and can applied improperly. As I said, a primary lesson for students is the moral lesson of hard work and discipline. Sometimes, rewarding “creativity” may be defeating that lesson. NOT all studies require creativity, some should not be allowed to reward “creativity”. But there is no such demarcation in Western Education systems.

    I believe, it’s not so much the education system that we should worry about in China. There is no shortage of hard working and creative students in China. Rather, I believe, it’s the society’s “DEMAND” for good disciplined educated and creative students that one must put premium on. I will explain below.

    I believe, the problem with US education is that the society is no longer competitive within. There is too much of a “mindset” of entitlement and apathy in the young, and this is not something that the education system can easily remove, because the teachers are not personal life style trainers for the kids. Kids want easy quick way to fame and fortune, and too many believe they can get that way without hard work. This dries up the society’s “demand” for disciplined educated students. (It’s not so much that JOBS are created for this “demand”, but it must be an overall social climate of “learning, discipline, and hard work are honorable virtues.”)

    In contrast, many Asian societies (thanks to the influence of Confucius), have long history of social climates that cherished learning. EVEN without creation of jobs, the societies DEMAND good students. Even poor students are considered more honorable than a wealthy street peddler. This is a good mindset to have, because even poor educated students of today, can create their own options in the future, and create innovation and wealth for society.

    I believe, as long as China continues to hold onto that climate of learning, Creativity will naturally come over time. Disciplined knowledgeable Chinese students will learn to apply their knowledge hands on. Creativity is a practice exercise itself. But if China loses that climate of learning, even if Chinese students have creativity, they would not have the discipline to hone creativity with knowledge and other skills.

    * I would agree that there are many pieces in the puzzle. Certainly, the missing competitors was a factor in China’s lack of scientific revolution. But I would caution a reverse, that Western societies (liberalized) are not immune to the effects of orthodoxy.

    All new ideas will inherently generate controversy against what is considered as “mainstream” of the time. The newer the idea, the greater the controversy. Sometimes, even the liberalized academia of the West may find the new ideas too hard to swallow. (Such as perhaps reexamination of virtues and flaws of modern Democracy.) Though we may no longer have Inquisitions on scientists, controversial subjects are easily marginalized into the dustbins of academia. Profit motives can starve out or delay new ideas (like GM’s electric car).

    Europe and US are still very much religious nations, increasingly religious in the last century. And religious institutions have sought to regain their resurgent influences in the liberalized scientific academia. It is not a welcoming trend. (There are states in US now, where the state prosecutors are investigating Universities for “misusing state academic funding”, for publishing reports supporting the notion of “global warming”.)

    The fact is, there have always been orthodoxy and unorthodoxy in every generation of people in the world. There is no shortage of either. Unorthodox thoughts are generally tolerated, unless it goes too far against the core beliefs of the majority. (There really is no simple magical policy to tolerate all unorthodox thoughts. Every society has its limits).

    Oddly enough, societies during wars, are either the most intolerant or the most tolerant of unorthodoxy. that’s probably because societies in wars are often undergoing fundamental social challenges against its core beliefs, when Orthodoxy may strengthen its grip on the society or find its hold cracking and crumbling. In that at least, liberal societies like US may just as likely become more orthodox as China.

  32. S.K. Cheung Says:

    To RV,
    very well said. Our early childhood education experiences are surprisingly similar.

    I particularly agree with these lines:
    “Without practices, the skill of creativity simply does not develop.”
    “Creativity is a practice exercise itself. But if China loses that climate of learning, even if Chinese students have creativity, they would not have the discipline to hone creativity with knowledge and other skills.”

    As with most things in life, I think the middle ground where things are taken in moderation is a good place to be. One can’t properly exercise their creativity productively without forming a foundational fund of knowledge first. And one can’t possibly study and memorize every conceivable solution to every conceivable problem. So one needs to learn some basics, but also have the confidence and capacity to apply them in new and wonderful ways when required. I think the Chinese and US education systems are both somewhat skewed, and could both use some degree of moderation.

  33. No99 Says:

    Indeed, it is very hard to be competent in Math and languages without the memory emphasis and “drilling” a.k.a. practice. Education, in general, is a lengthy topic to talk about though.

    Maybe I should chime in some points here. Throughout most of world history, innovation usually came through a few source. One, through improvements or any inventions made by farmers, sailors, any type of craftsmen and laborer basically to enhance their trade and lot. Two, they could be projects issued by authorities. Could be government, a local village counsel or in some cases, clergy. Third, hobbies done by people with a lot of time with their hands. Ancient China pretty much had all of them in various degrees, especially the first two.

    The Academia/Government/Business triad common today is very recent. Kind of took hold around World War 2. Many people had to do a lot of jobs, often unrelated to what they’re interested in. Positions where people can just focus on their particular specialty wasn’t available for a very long time.

    I think some reasons why people, Chinese and non-Chinese have a hard time to think anything decently about this area could be this; A lot of Chinese innovations didn’t reach the general population overall. There’s a very high chance many people don’t have any memory or recollection in their families of ever having prosper or benefited from them. Then there is the fact that a lot of people don’t know enough about how technology works, whether it’s today or pre-modern ones. Many people also don’t include in the different factors involved in making technology efficient and accessible. The last point I want to make is a lot of people don’t know enough about their own history and bring it on a global perspective, which would mean knowing enough about history of other places. They also need to read between the lines, and see beyond what is taught in schools or mainstream thought. However, in the end, it really depends on how interested one is.

    I think overall, pre-modern Chinese methods and tools were sufficient given the conditions. Though if people want to say they’re advanced, I can accept to a certain point because there is some substance behind it.

  34. No99 Says:

    Oh, I have to mention something about Joseph Needham, just a side note.

    I had a mini-debate online with someone before about that man, with a Chinese national, studying Chinese history, in Australia. He claims that most historians in China don’t take Needham seriously at all. Some of his points in why was valid, but overall seem questionable. I contacted a professor at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei. It was over a different matter, but from what I can tell, there wasn’t any attitude of dismissing Needham’s work, it was just one of many fields to look at.

    So, I’m not entirely sure what’s the deal. I’m aware that scholars debate all the time and there are many interesting theories within Chinese academia, at least the ones I’ve heard of. Anyone have an opinion?

  35. Rhan Says:

    r v

    I read below from a forum, the author view is quite similar as yours.

    ## It’s rare that so many people can be both right and wrong at the same time, but not surprising because everyone seems to turn all issues into binaries. Anyone thinking that rote learning has made the Chinese uncreative should remember that people like Nobel Prize winners Chen-Ning Yang and Lee Tsung Dao had their science basics at Tsinghua – they went over to the US to write their prize-winning thesis AND received their PhDs in about two years. And many subsequent Chinese Nobel prize winners in physics and chemistry also studied Chinese – “rote-fashion” – during their formative years.

    It’s true that learning Chinese writing requires memorization, but this memory is aided with the logic of the script. A man looks small with arms loosely hung at his sides (xiao), but big when his arms are spread (da). In classical Chinese, a young sapling enclosed with boundaries becomes “distress” – a reminder that children need freedom in order to grow to their potential. As each stroke and character have their meanings, memorization isn’t so difficult as most non-Chinese imagine.

    Yet learning Chinese certainly needs more memory power than learning phonetic scripts. For USEFUL creativity comes only AFTER one has mastered the basics, and this always involves some memorization. In fact, there was a big debate in the US during the 80s and early 90s over the way American kids were instructed, based on the misconception that creativity and rote memorization are incompatible. Probably with some reluctance, more and more American educators have come to accept that memorization is intrinsic to all skill-learning.

    That’s why I talked about not seeing things in binaries or opposites. Sole dependence on memorization is certainly bad, but nothing could be learned without some memorization. Before one could be creative in kungfu or karate one must memorize, day in and day out, the basic movements of the art. In gymnastics, the most difficult and risky movements depend on basic skills that are acquired through constant repetitions and practice. In representational painting, one must first remember certain dos and don’ts – mixing vermilion with Prussian blue often results in muddy colors because of their chemical incompatibility. Painting over a spot several times in watercolor often results in dull colors, if that spot doesn’t have a hole in it in the first place. Many so-called “creative” methods of teaching Art seldom survive the grade school class – paintings of the unskilled have a strange way of seeming all alike, contrary to the fanciful claims of their proponents.

    Chinese calligraphy is a good example for illustrating the need for repetitive learning before one could become “creative.” Every famous Chinese calligrapher must first learn how to hold the brush, how much ink to use, and when to paint over a previously painted area. These are basic skills that must become part of the calligrapher before he could deviate from them. The deviations that resulted are what the public calls originality. In other words, before one could be original, one must first know very well what is not.

    The process is the same when writing in English – one cannot imitate the streams of consciousness of James Joyce or produce the visual play of E. E. Cummings without first grasping the basics of English grammar. One must first learn the rules, and that often requires repetition – memorization – before one could intelligently break them.

    So skill learning must involve some memorization, and creativity is a departure from that memorization. The two processes are interdependent – once cannot exist without the other. There’s no up without a down, no north without a south. Many American educationists have recognized that the poor mathematics skills of American students were due to lack of such basic spadework, or “rote learning” if you want to call it that. On the other hand, others also have a point that, beyond the acquiring of basic skills or knowledge, emphasis must be made to encourage thinking outside the box. ##

  36. r v Says:

    I had my own teaching experiences on memorization.

    When I was in undergrad, I tutored high school kids. When I was in grad school, I was a teaching assistant.

    Once, I was tutoring a high school kid who was failing chemistry. She could understand all the concepts of chemical reactions, yet couldn’t recall the chemical formulas to write them out during tests. Then it occurred to me that she simply had a hard time memorizing the chemical names, the long names for the compounds, and thus she couldn’t write out the names or the formulas.

    So I gave her a tip, “recite the chemical names out loud,” recite them loudly to herself at least 5 times, and then try to write out the chemical names, repeat if she still couldn’t remember the names and the formulas.

    She was very reluctant to try it, and I assured her that it worked for me in high school. I made her try it couple of times in front of me, and encouraged her to keep doing it in the future.

    After a few weeks, she told me that she manage to get an A on a chemistry test. She was very happy that the technique was working for her.

    I used the technique because it worked for me. And I kept using it when I went to law school and when studying for the bar exam.

    But I would be the 1st to admit, I am terrible at memorizing things. But it’s an important part of learning and life. I can’t always go look up the information. And even if I could, it would be inefficient to constantly go look up information that I could have memorized. I wouldn’t have time to try to “think outside of the box” if I have spend all the time looking up information. So whatever I’m working on in engineering or in law, first thing I always do is MEMORIZE all the basic information I think I will need for a specific project. Once I get that out of the way, I can have more time to go crazy on “thinking outside of the box”.

    When I was in US high school, I was reading 200 pages of history and literature each night for homework. It was more work than I had in Chinese schools. But I went through both for the better.

    When I got into law school, I was reading about 200 pages of law books every week, and I was thanking my Chinese school and US high school teachers who drilled my brain like it was in military boot camp. My Chinese school and my US high school training gave me mental discipline and toughness.

    *I think some people worry too much about “distress” on the students. School is school. There is Life after school. In law school, many law professors will say, one’s performance in law school has nothing to do with one’s success after. So it is the same with all other schools.

    As a student, one should do the hard work, spend as much time as one can to accumulate as much knowledge from books and practices, drill, memorize, practice, test. But there is LIFE after that, where one learn to be creative and successful.

    School does not teach someone to become a genius. School does not make someone into a successful business person. School just gives one the basic tools and knowledge to get a start in LIFE.

  37. No99 Says:

    Hi rv,

    I used a similar method when I was an undergrad as well. Instead of reciting out loud, I kept on writing out the names and formulas for my Chemistry course each time I study. It did help me get an A. Though Organic Chem is a little harder.

    Since you all are talking about it, what is really helpful for helping students think outside the box is being given the environment and opportunity to fail and pick themselves up again. Some places can’t afford that. Then there is the balance between gaining outside experiences compared with doing well in the classroom. Some people can’t afford that or don’t know how to. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and it’s not always about the system per se.

  38. No99 Says:

    Well, for something more current.


    I think for readers of this blog, you all are probably aware of the issue in China’s science and technology sphere.

    Let me chime in something, and this is not tic for tac. There is a dark side with science and technology in general. When there are issues within the field itself, even if a country takes care of it’s own problems, they will need to tackle on challenges that “comes with the territory” sort to speak. The competition to publish papers is intense and the probability that people are working on the same or very similar project is high. Some people who review the papers will have ties with a particular researcher(s) or institution and would intentionally drag the time it takes to finish analyzing the paper done by another researcher(s) or institution, if they were submitted first.

    There’s a lot of networking involved, as with any career, but like any career, or how people get certain projects and positions can often be questionable, so not everything is based on merit. There’s also the work itself, which I’ve witnessed. The same project, with the exact procedures and similar results over the last decade or so, can produce 20 different papers. Then there are some projects where people really have to get dirty or go through the haystack to seek the missing pin. When dealing with human subjects and animals, for legal reasons mainly, they get someone else (often not directly affiliated) to do the work. Maybe not in every researcher(s) or institution’s case, but I’m aware of some practices. They have to pay them more, and along with other discrepancies, research becomes more costly. (just a little more).

    I think for the average person, cutting edge probably brings up the image of science-fiction or “star trek” like work and the lone genius. Well, it’s more down to earth, there’s hardly anything that doesn’t involved a group of people working together. There are a lot of people that deserve credit, not just the ones acknowledge on paper or journals. Also, like I mentioned before, lab work resembles more of a kitchen/garage type of atmosphere. That type of environment is not easy to maintain or to get resources. Sometimes they have to find what’s cheaper to get due to their funding. I don’t think it affects the quality of the experiments, but for some it might.

    Overall, it probably isn’t a dark side, more like that’s how reality is. It’s a neutral viewpoint, can’t really say it’s overtly negative. There can be improvements as well. That’s my take on it.

  39. r v Says:

    I think, in the next century or so, Intellectual Property laws will evolve more toward “trade secret”, a system slightly more evolved than the traditional Chinese artisan secrecy system of passing down knowledge from masters to apprentices.

    Companies will began to realize that work force is just too mobile for IP protections, and thus will begin to demand that legal systems provide more protection in terms of trade secret, based upon fiduciary and agent responsibility doctrines.

    IP’s should no longer be given to individuals, but rather entire organizations. Thus to prevent the few inventors from holding corporations hostage. (This has happened several times recently in US. US companies are now more careful about trusting individuals for entire R&D projects.)

    All of that point to that Chinese laws should evolve toward a more “collective ownership” scheme of IP, where efforts of everyone involved should be legally protected, and prevent “trolling” or “hijacking” of IP’s by unscrupulous inventors and investors. (Naturally, “inventors” would have name recognition, and their ability to obtain more work would obviously improve over time. That alone should be sufficient reward incentive.)

  40. No99 Says:

    Hi r v

    Do you mind if I ask if you are involved in Intellectual property?
    I noticed you mentioned law school in some previous comments. I have several relatives in I.T. and they mentioned to me how there will be a lot of activity in terms of legal matters with technology.

  41. No99 Says:

    Here is another article I ran into while search for something else.
    It briefly mentions China.


    To be honest, it’s actually decent compared with a lot of material I’ve read. Although it jumps around a bit and does put aside the significance of non-European societies…it’s ok in a sense of emphasizing the author’s point. In my opinion, I think it summarizes the “average” Western-centric mindset about the past. Which is a little ironic since anything about the West or Western is essentially international, beyond Europe. Nothing wrong with being focused but it’s incomplete when taken on a global perspective.

    I kind of wish there are people and ideas out there to balance off the Western-centric and Chinese-centric mentalities though.

  42. r v Says:


    I am a registered Patent Attorney in US. There is always a lot of activities in IP law, technology is only 1 aspect. China is filing more and more patents in US nowadays.

  43. No99 Says:

    Hi r v

    I’m curious, do you work on the West Coast by any chance?

    I thought about pursuing a career in Law before. I got interested when my friends and relatives explained what most lawyers actually do (which from what I’ve heard, different than the TV shows).

  44. TonyP4 Says:

    Sorry for all lawyers here and hope you can handle the truth. I do not have high respect for lawyers except in a few areas (like patent…). Our medical system is pretty much screwed up by the high expense of suing. Most lawyers work for the rich and powerful (how they get power) and some in the process of getting rich (due to lawsuits of course).

    I do understand the society should have laws and order esp. in China. However, US is the other extreme. We need to lower the lawsuit compensation to victims and lawyers. It is easy for the jury to award millions for some one pouring Mac Donald’s hot coffee to himself by himself, but they do not realize we all have to pay for it eventually.

    I do not blame lawyers, but the legal system in US.

  45. r v Says:


    I used to be in California, but now I’m in DC, (or as I call it, the Pit of Satan’s minions.)

    I would encourage anyone to engage in study of law, whether professionally or as a hobby. But obviously, until you actually practice it, you won’t really understand Law.

    And it’s never too late to jump into Law. I was an engineer for many years, and then decided to study Law.

  46. r v Says:


    I would agree with you about lawsuits in US and the legal system. But I would also add that you might also want to blame the lawsuit happy “victims”, or the average innocent “Common man” (because that’s usually how they describe themselves in lawsuits).

    I personally don’t care if the corporations want to bankrupt one another with lawsuits, they have enough smart lawyers that they can play the game with one another.

    Another problem with the US legal system is the general rule that each party pay their own lawyer fees. In UK, they have the “Loser pay” rule, so lot of people don’t bother suing if they know they might not win. But US, we just have too many frivolous lawsuits.

    I would agree with UK’s legal doctrine. If a person is ignorant and stupid enough to bring a lawsuit that has no merits, he/she should pay for the other side’s legal fees. (That would also encourage citizens to learn the law.)

  47. No99 Says:

    r v,

    That’s probably how it is with most views. A lot of times, we won’t actually understand the concepts and materials without actually being involved.

    I’ll keep Law in mind.

  48. r v Says:

    Good luck, No99. Obviously, I am very happy to gain new knowledge and new experiences in different fields of study. So I always recommend people to try it. It’s not for everyone, but you don’t know until you try.

  49. Josef Says:

    At no99 referring to 41.

    The reference is interesting but to my opinion does not meet reality. Before enlightenment there was no real medieval technology, there was no steady development at all. I think without the reformation and its turmoil, which potentially triggered enlightenment, there would not have been any superior technology in Europe. The author wrote in your reference:

    Like gunpowder, many of the technologies developed and utilized by Europeans originated in China. But the Chinese were never able to fully develop the promise of these inventions because their economic development was strangled by a “bureaucratic, state controlled economy.”


    Thus, the Industrial Revolution that began in England c. 1760 was the inevitable outcome of a thousand years of European technological progress fostered by economic freedom.

    There was neither thousand years of progress nor thousand years of economic freedom. But there were competitors which China was missing, rather than the state controlled economy.

  50. No99 Says:

    Hi Josef,

    I understand what you mean.
    Well, considering the author, the title, the site and the readers of the site, I wasn’t surprised at the nature of the article. There are many factors, not mentioned that happen within Europe, as well as the significance of non-Europeans. The information is out there to counter or balance out the statements in the article. I just think the way it’s presented kind of represents the average Western-centric mindset (not westerners, people living in the west, just anybody who thinks that way). Well, I should be more fair, because the American mentality has some differences viewing Europe and its history than Europeans (and other Western societies) themselves.

  51. jxie Says:

    No99, belated and quick comment.

    David Deming is a geologist and geophysicist, not a historian. His viewpoints about the Middle Age Europe, as far as I know, has the backing of very few historians. Actually I would go one step further and claim the Medieval Europe comparatively was more like the modern day Taliban, in terms of living standard and overall progressiveness.

    Zheng He’s story has many interesting facets. He was born to a Muslim family that descended from an Arabic nobleman brought by Mongols to govern Yunnan (which wasn’t even controlled by Tang/Song). After Ming annexed Yunnan, he was taken by Ming and raised as a eunuch. He rose through the Ming system as mostly a successful diplomat. He was a Buddhist but well versed in Islam. Eventually he was entrusted a sizable portion of Ming’s navy.

    A side musing is that, can somebody in China now with a background similar to Zheng He rise to Zheng He’s level? Bear in mind, the great Tang was even more inclusive than Ming. Gosh, how about starting the reform of immigration and citizenship laws?

    In its early expansive phase, Ming had a powerful navy. What Zheng was able to accomplish more than his peers was that he sailed to the Indian Ocean. It’s not like Ming all of sudden became close to the outside world after him. But rather after Zheng died, Ming suffered a major military defeat against Mongols. After that, the expansive phase of Ming ended. It abandoned its navy, and decided that the existential threat from north is more serious than sea-lane dominance. In retrospect, you can argue that was the beginning of China’s downfall — or you can go all the way back to when Mongols overran the whole China and in a way permanently altered the Chinese psyche.

  52. No99 Says:


    I see what you mean. The problem is that there’s quite a lot of people out there, non-historians and non-historic-minded, who pretty much believe in that. Life in the past was a bit more complex, but I think it’s similar to how most people see media as;they just like the narratives and generalizations.

    I know the Ming and early Qing dynasties were considerably powerful in their own unique way. On the global perspective, China was still on that level until the late 1700s. Which is why I don’t accept people who say in the 15th or 16th century China “fell” behind. They’re just trying to adjust it to the eurocentric model with the Renaissance and Age of Exploration. Even though it was a bit more complex.

    The Mongols changed the landscape and psyche throughout Asia, as well as parts of Eastern Europe, in general. It’s hard to say what it would be like if that era hadn’t happen though. Could be better or worse, depending on what viewpoints.

    On the Zheng He story. Well, no society or civilization has truly been indigenous in all of it’s accomplishments. It’s almost always a matter of getting skills or talent wherever they be. Immigration and Citizenship laws are complicated and I think it’s something each country has to work out on its own. There’s too many significant factors within each on that’s unique to the place.

  53. jxie Says:

    At a per capita basis, Qing never led the world in living standard, like Ming did. At its peak, Ming’s population was probably 100 million, give or take. When the Brits arrived in the 1840s, Qing had more than 400 million. However, Qing’s grain production never exceeded Ming’s peak. When the European visitors came in the 1500s, they saw and marveled of the wealth, the healthy looking people, and the well organized society with no crime. But in the late 1700s, they saw the underfed mass and soldiers, and ubiqitous beggars.

    Moreover, the Manchu rulers controlled the iron production and other industrial productions. The iron production in Qing was only a tiny fraction of that in Ming.

    OK, here I will ramble a bit…

    Temporarily falling behind never would kill you. Medieval Europe lost the early progressiveness achieved by the Greeks and the Romans, and that progressiveness was then passed down by the Middle Easterners. Yet after the Renaissance revival, Europe went back to the top. It only took the Meiji Restoration and a few decades to turn Japan from a backwater island nation to a world power.

    Mencius said, “富贵不能淫,贫贱不能移,威武不能屈,此之谓大丈夫.” Well that works if you enemy was XiongNu — 苏武 was only sent to herding goats, not beheaded, or Xianbei — southward advancement became a long process of its own Sinification and eventually a total assimilation. Yet 威武不能屈 in Northern China (Jin), would get your whole city slaughtered, in Southern China (Song), would force you and your peers to jump off the cliff to the sea.

    Personally I equate the fall of Song to the fall of Rome — both triggered a long and slow decline of the respective civilizations. A city burned down can be easily rebuilt, but if you take out the soul of a civilization, what’s left is centuries of emptiness…

    Much like the European Renaissance, what China needs today is its own version of renaissance.

  54. No99 Says:

    Well, I calculate late 1700s to be after the 1760s. Maybe other people might count differently. In the 1770s, we can still see writing by foreigners in China and analyzed by intellectuals elsewhere (according to the times) that comparably speaking, China as a whole was still respected in many ways. Though that was when start noticing the increasing issues and significant differences between China and elsewhere, the foreigners still couldn’t “muscle” their ways in like they did in other places. A few decades later, people recognized the weaknesses in the Chinese society, but the weaponry, skills and other technology didn’t over-leap until after the 1820s. Overall speaking that is.

    I really think the major theme of the Renaissance wasn’t so much of the rebirth of Europe’s glory. The Ancient Greeks, Romans, Celtics and others before the 16th century won’t be able to recognized their descendants. They might see some inheritance but there’s too many significant differences. It was more like it was the time when people start to push beyond the limits. Push beyond the limitations of superstition, of geography, of art, of government, etc. It took a while though before everything finally matured a few centuries later.

    I don’t know if a Renaissance is what China needs today. Maybe not a rebirth per se, but more like pushing beyond the limits. The limitations of technology, of social conscience, etc.

  55. Rhan Says:

    Jxie, hope you ramble more.

    “Much like the European Renaissance, what China needs today is its own version of renaissance.”

    1. I believe Mao want to do that, perhaps the timing is not right.

    2. Can we dig the seeds of renaissance from our ancient wisdom? I recently flip through an interview done on 易中天in his latest book 书生傻气, seem like the answer is negative, meaning to say we still have to “look west”? I am puzzle why the Japanese can do it in Meiji Restoration while Chinese is a bit slow, something to do with our rigid and too self-righteous character?

    3. Generally speaking, is Luxun thought and criticism still valid to Chinese today?

  56. Wukailong Says:

    Interesting discussion! Rhan, as for Japan’s Meiji restoration, they actually do have self-doubts and problems with their identity in a way that Western countries don’t. One of the reasons for the rise of fascism, apart from the results of the economic depression, was this constant sense of self-doubt. The Japanese had avoided being invaded by Western colonial forces, but at the same time lost much of their traditional way of life.

  57. No99 Says:

    Technically speaking, there almost hardly any place with an absolute strong historical line of continuity. Clothing, Customs, language, a lot can change within one generation. More less each century or dynasty. Even though it may look like not much has change. So, how is a Chinese Renaissance going to look like?

    As for Japan, maybe it’s partially the result of the defeat at World War 2 that left this type of cultural issue. Like Jixie mentioned about the Mongols long effect on Chinese psyche. Before the 20th Century, Japan has never been occupied or successfully invaded by outsiders. To experienced something profound that never happened before can leave a strong “scar’. I wonder how long it might take to dilute the effects from the more recent Foreign invasions of China in the last two centuries.

  58. No99 Says:

    In learning about Lu Xun, I stumbled upon a book called Chinese Characteristics by Arthur H. Smith written over a century ago. It’s an handful reading it.



  59. jxie Says:

    I. About Lu Xun & Arthur Smith. In the recent years, the punctuality rate at arrival of Chinese passenger trains has hovered around 99%. The only European nations in the megaphone shouting distance away are Spain and Switzerland. In the UK, the punctuality rate typically goes for about low 80s%, in a good year; in Germany, it goes for low 90s%. Typically a train is considered late when it’s late at the final destination for more than 5 minutes. Due to the density of the cities along the newly completed Shanghai/Nanjing intercity express, most new G-trains have relatively little time-saving advantage over the D-trains that run on the existing line. More likely a marketing ploy, the local railroad operator announced that if a G-train is late for more than 10 SECONDS, it’s considered late — and it wants to achieve high 90s% punctuality rate.

    If you look at the works of Arthur Smith and Lu Xun — they were hardly wrong — the Chinese had no regard of time or accuracy. It’s just that the traits were not intrinsic to Chinese. If you examine it like Peter Drucker (efficiency can be taught), or Jared Diamond (author of “Guns, Germs, and Steel”), what made Chinese that way were: 1. there were no cheap and portable timepieces available to most Chinese; 2. most Chinese weren’t taught or trained in modern science/engineering.

    II. There were at least a couple things going for the Japanese prior to the Meiji Restoration compared to Chinese:

    1. Its literacy rate was much higher than China. If you had gone to Japan as a Song/Ming Chinese like Arthur Smith, you would’ve written a book about “Japanese characteristics” as educationally inferior. Yet as a Qing Chinese, you would have had to write something opposite: Japanese were better educated.

    2. The interests of the Japanese leaders lined up well with the interests of the Japanese nationstate. It was hardly the case for Qing: The paramount interest of the Manchu rulers was maintaining its minority rule.

    * The Renaissance was not a simple revival of the Greek or Roman ways of living, but rather it was about going back to the past — the past before the Medieval religious fanaticism, cruelty & dogmatism — and finding the forgotten core values, developing and enriching the whole civilization. A Chinese renaissance now wouldn’t be simply reenacting another Confucianism society. 易中天 argues that all theories including 诸子百家 should be examined again, and modern Western scientific advancements should be embraced whole-heartedly as well. In a way it’s not that dissimilar to what No99 argues.

  60. jxie Says:

    BTW, No99, you may want to check out John Barrow’s book Travels in China, published in 1804. The book is available in Google Books. He took the trip to China in 1797, and what he saw was supposed to be the peak of Qing 乾隆盛世. The takeaway to the Brits back home then was probably China should be very easy to take down — certainly not a nation to be revered or feared.


    In Mao’s poem 沁园春·雪, he wrote,


    As somebody who spent my early childhood in a subsistent living environment with ration coupons, I can hardly think of Mao as a great leader in the league of 唐宗宋祖. His mojo was revolution, not renaissance. 唐宗宋祖 built their dynasties of unparalleled prosperity and cultural opulence, and Mao brought us malnutrition and starvation. Sadly he didn’t die at least a decade earlier…

  61. No99 Says:

    Thanks for the reference Jixie, I will check that book out later.

    I do understand though that many people did see the weaknesses at that time, but with their weaponry and technology, especially the gunboats and tactics that needed engines…including some improvements on steel that the Brits learned from the Indians…all that took form after the 1820s. I guess after the Napoleonic Wars and other conflicts with the colonies. When they could finally muscle their ways in. That was when people can finally ridicule someone for bringing a knife to a gun battle.

    This isn’t my idea per se, but I did read from others that what the Europeans wanted the most was trade. It certainly didn’t fear or “exceptionally” respected China during their peak. However, they did recognized the appeal of some of their industries and resources. The Industrial revolution was significant, but in terms of quality of the products and services as well as efficiency of those machines…the labor intensive methods of not just China but the non-industrialized societies could still compete. Relatively speaking. I think there were several stages or phases of the Industrial Revolution, and it was the 2nd or 3rd one I think which finally made that impact we all see now.

    Nothing wrong with what Lu Xun and Smith said, but there is a matter of perspective on their part. Well, let me begin by agreeing with your points about time and accuracy. However, most people in the West too were not trained in modern science/engineering as well. What we have now, with the compulsory education and heavily science-oriented curriculum was the result of the 2nd World war. For Smith, he did focused quite a bit on the strengths of the “Christian civilization” and religion is what would change all the deplorable Chinese Characteristics. Although I do see the positive notes of the Christian religion and its influences, you all may have different ideas. The West certainly had different ideas regarding religion as well.

    I’m not sure what you mean about your previous comment though. I don’t think I said anything that is opposite of what you mentioned. I might have worded it differently. Or maybe I’m misunderstanding something , let me know.

    I didn’t mean to say that living again like the Ancient Romans and Greeks. The Medieval time’s infamous cruelty was in a sense an extension of the cruelty they already had during Antiquity. The Renaissance certainly was inspired by the Past, but a lot of changes were made to a point where at times they couldn’t connect with their Ancients. It was something entirely different. Although I’m not good at it, I know mathematics is one example. Nothing wrong with re-examining or learning again the positive notes of the past and embracing what what is new and beneficial like science. If what you said is what a Chinese Renaissance will be like, then I say all for it.

  62. No99 Says:


    Apologies for the last paragraph. Ignore it if you wish. I misunderstood your comment.

    First of all, I’m kind of amazed at the fact that these old books could be read for free online. I might have actually read it before because reading it sounded too familiar. I hope this assessment doesn’t sound too amateur. O.K. here I go.
    For John Barrow’s Travels in China. Overall speaking, he sounds like he is more disappointed than contempt. Considering the content, it’s actually a little balanced. Sir Barrow offers a little bit of equivalent retaliation on his own part, noting the many follies of his own society with Europe at large could match with China’s conditions. The critique is straight-forward, mentioning the same deplorable behaviors as Arthur Smith a century later, but he offers ample amount of praise, especially the cuisine, agriculture, horticulture, hospitality and even justice system to my surprise. He mentions a lot of weaknesses of the military and artillery. However, Sir John Barrow is kind of careful and stops short of speculating any full scale British-Chinese conflict. I see a little bit of the attitude of British superiority but I don’t get the strong impression that China could be easily taken down.

    On a side note. Travels in China talks about that science and technology quite briefly (he talks more about the language). So I just want to respond in the same manner. It’s accurate to say that the study of phenomena is important. However, the primitive Chinese methods he condemns was still valid. Efficiency, quality and production between the modern (industrialized) and pre-modern ways wasn’t extremely different. Not until more improvements and the application of electricity in the later half of the 19th century. Sir John Barrow might have jump ahead in his view, only a little bit.

    The importance of hygiene is well-understood but I think when Sir John Barrow emphasize that on the Chinese, he kind of went a little bit tangent. This area as well as medicine, it really can’t be said that conventional (Western) practices fare any better during his time and a few decades later. That’s kind of where I’m in disagreement with the book, and I’m not alone.

    Here is a link to an article related to this topic which might help.


    One more side note…I know I mentioned about the advancements of weaponry made by Europeans which helped them muscle their ways into the world. The advancements made in weaponry is accurate but I might have went off in their emphasis on China’s past. For example, the infamous Opium Wars were a little bit more complicated than portrayed. Most of the battles were skirmishes and extremely small altercations with many cases of ordinary Chinese helping out the Brits providing food and other provisions. They weren’t taking sides per se, but more like looking out for their own interests. Like the fat kid and who offers the bigger cake analogy. A large portion of the British forces consisted of troops from the Indian subcontinent. That may or may not make a difference when analyzing this event. The Qing authorities surrender in a lot of cases, because that was the better option for them to remain in power, not necessarily because of any conventional war lost. It was more like part of their own strategies rather than total submission to the greater power(s). Although the costs later on were more tragic. However, one interesting outcome was that the British didn’t benefit that much. (The story of Hong Kong is something on its own). Their products still weren’t that desirable and had to resort back to mainly Silver and Opium for a while after the wars. This is the other half of the story many Chinese don’t hear when they refer to this period in time.

  63. Rhan Says:

    Mao is the exact molded product of May Forth, he believe he can transform China with his political power and continuous revolution is the solution, there are many who share the same belief that 社会主义is the way to go at that time, he failed miserably to provide Chinese a better life. He is not open-minded enough if compare to 唐太宗/宋太祖. However, I think Mao did make China a force to be reckoned with, and pave the way for China to move forward with their own approach, which could be either good or bad, we don’t know yet.

    “Sadly he didn’t die at least a decade earlier…” So lucky Lu Xun not die a few decades later……

    “but at the same time lost much of their traditional way of life.”
    Are they? I always thought they preserve their traditional way of life many times better than Chinese? I notice Japanese have great fears toward the West on almost everything.

  64. jxie Says:

    No99, it was probably my fault. What I wrote about your view on the renaissances (the Renaissance and a Chinese renaissance), and 易中天’s view could be easily misread. I could’ve written it better.

    Marco Polo traveled around the world in the late 1200s and raved about the higher living standard in China after he went back to his hometown Venice, one of the richest towns in Europe. His stories were met with disbelief at home initially, but the stories told by other European travelers to China had been reasonably consistent up to quite possibly John Barrow. My theory is, Marco Polo, and most of the subsequent visiting Jesuits saw a different China from John Barrow. In terms of living standard, Ming > Qing. There are enough information in the official historical records that we can figure out population, grain production, etc. Even outside of those official records, there are so much available unofficial information that we can piece together the living standards of the respective dynasties. For instance, how much a typical day-labor made at different times, how much the cost of daily necessities (rice, meat, cloth, etc.) were…

  65. No99 Says:


    No doubt Ming was greater than Qing in many areas. Though I did read that Qing was actually decent in the beginning, because their authority was kind of decentralized. I’m making a couple of guesses. One, the Manchu court, being a minority, devised a number of strategies to keep the general population from gaining too much power, like slowing down weapon advancements and limited opportunities for prosperity. Two, the population grew so large that resources couldn’t keep up with the living standards for everyone. It regress. In both John Barrow and Arthur Smith’s account, a century apart, you can sense some of the frustrations originating from those two possible reasons I listed. Some anti-foreign sentiments might have been due to, but not limited, those reasons as well.

    I don’t think we should take everything those two men, and everyone in between, absolutely though. 75% for sure but not 100%. If you ask someone of a different status or nationality, like perhaps a farmer, soldier, factory worker or non-upper middle class individual, they might offer a different view. No one really knew much about Chinese technology and science until actual Engineers and Scientists analyzed it. Same thing with art and architecture, wasn’t entirely appreciated until people who knew how it all worked or had a real taste for art offer their opinions on it. A brief side note; In so many ways, the entire 19th century was a turbulent time for everyone in the world.

    Also, for Arthur Smith, as well as Lu Xun and other Chinese intellectuals, there was a lot of behaviors which weren’t quite deplorable but still didn’t make sense to them at the time. However, it does for us now. It is normal for the human body to behave to the rising and setting of the Sun, it is healthy to stay busy even if there is no material reward, it is perfectly fine to chase after goals such as trying to pass the exam even if one was very old with no possibility of actually using it (chasing our dreams, sounds modern eh? ), etc.

  66. No99 Says:

    One more thing. I was touched in a sense by an account written in Travels in China. There was a story about a missionary who prevented a death of a female infant. A Chinese convert was about to put to death his newborn in a jar of water. The missionary try to persuade the convert not to do so. Saying it was a grave sin and against the teachings of Christ. The convert responded saying it would be more cruel for him to let his daughter live a life of pain and sorrow. To not experience anything good since he couldn’t afford anything. The missionary in the end said that she must perform the baptism rite. They did so in that jar of water. However, the missionary held the infant with her face exposed, handing it slowly to back to the convert looking straight in his eyes. The convert couldn’t help but shed tears looking at the innocent face. He decided not to kill his daughter and try to cherish the gift of life once more. The missionary understood that despite anyone’s personal beliefs or circumstances, the human heart rules over them all.

    I think the story is real. There’s so many events in our lives and in the past which really don’t make sense other than free will and love.

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