Another perspective on looking at China’s past
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.
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