The Needham Question: why was China so culturally, intellectually, and economically dominant and then it was the UK / Dutch / Belgians / Portuguese who subverted the rest of the world fully 6 centuries after China developed 3-masted ships?

  • Gunpowder was developed by Daoists searching for the elixir of life…trying to subdue KNO₃ (viz, Alchemy discovering things; in general non-QM-level chemistry leading to inventions)
  • a mixture of sulphur, honey, and saltpeter (i.e., poop)
  • the idea of competing governments in Europe —vs— two in China. This is apparently due to Hume.
  • Needham mis-characterised Chinese thought as being either: Confucian (ethical concerns only), Buddhist (fleeing the world), or Daoist.

    I bet this is where Kenneth Clark (or was it James Burke) got his silly sinology: saying that “the Chinese mind” wanted to “go with the flow” rather than Europeans who want to change the world to suit themselves. (Rubbish.)

  • But Buddhists were also interested in science. 8th cent mathematician/astronomer: “We have to get the secular stuff right, or people will think we are stupid”
  • Invention of the printing press: “The ruler [in Japan] was able to produce large numbers of holy objects [scriptures of the Buddha]” which was great for his image.
  • canals, ceramics; trading with Japan, SE Asia
  • Trade: “What went out from China was eagerly sought; what was brought back was trinkets and frippery for the rich to enjoy”
  • Tang dynasty (600-900 A.D.) markets were more tightly controlled than laissez-faire past. People move more freely and freer markets during Song Dynasty. Banknotes.
  • “Too successful for its own good?” Complacency.
  • Paper in lavatory, wallpaper, clothing, decorations. Not only printing paper.
  • 19th century Sinologists wanted to “look for the reasons for failure” — but it’s ahistorical to read the past in terms of what happened later.
  • Christian Jesuits in China. The Indians had been tolerant simply because India is tolerant of so many G-ds. Why not one more? (oops)
  • Natural theology. The Chinese must have inherited the good order and right thinking of Eden. (medieval) “All we need to do is let them know about Christ” As opposed to how savages were treated.
  • Jesuits beating Islamic astrologers at prediction; teaching maths to the Emperor in his own chamber.
  • Sinophilia in Europe, Chinese perceived as more enlightened
  • The governance of China (imperial bureaucracy) surprised Europeans. Not hereditary aristocrats nor paying for the post.
  • a career open of talents (where the British Civil Service came from) #meritocracy
  • silk, porcelain, agriculture, lochs & canals; hydraulic China
  • Diderot, Leibniz, Hume all took a negative view of China
  • “Those foolish Chinese don’t understand Science! That is, they don’t know the world is composed of four elements (due to Aristotle). They think it’s composed of five! The nincompoops!”
  • The West finally got a technical lead with steam power.
  • Lord Macartney had been seducing Catherine the Great.
  • diving bell, hot air balloon, telescopes, burning glasses,
  • Qen Leung emperor “We have no need of your toys”
    — partly because Jesuits had sold science previously as a fascination or entertainment (rather than, say, military application)
    — partly because Qen Long was well informed about British intrusions into India. First “We just want to trade” and then they’re all up into the Chinese border of Nepal. No, thanks, I’d rather not have the trade and keep you outta my Kingdom.
  • awful Western medicine killing Chinese orphans in the countryside. Rumours: “Westerners need a baby’s eye to create a mirror. That’s why they take and kill them” “Westerners need to put a dead baby under each sleeper in order to build a railway” (for me this is reminiscent of Guatemalan rumours about white North Americans stealing Guatemalan babies … maybe the mother didn’t want to admit she gave it up for adoption because that’s shameful, so when confronted she said the adoption agency took it)
  • Lu Gwei Jen was the woman behind Joseph Needham’s work.
  • a Chinese book in 1922 Why China Has No Science — they’d missed their own history
  • Like Frank Wilczek’s advice for success: Needham was looking at new data — rather than measuring with devices that had never been used before, he was reading books that everyone had ignored.
  • “There are different ways of looking at science. ‘Science’ doesn’t just mean ‘modern Western science’ but achievements in other cultural contexts” (Indian, Chinese, Muslim)
  • invention versus science (science having roots in Greek philosophers)
  • Chinese ways of abstract thinking were very different”
  • “Once there’s one industrial revolution—with all the power, military & commercial, that that gives—there’s no room for another”
  • “If the Seung navy had sailed up the Thames sometime in the 13th century, brought us gunpowder and compass and printing presses and completely swept us away into the Chinese culture…there might have been some Chinese historians saying ‘But look at all that interesting stuff those Greeks did…why didn’t they have the Seung Industrial Revolution first?”
  • pirates on the East China coast were quick to acquire the latest ballistics
  • “People are already beginning to write narratives of Chinese history that try to depict even the 19th century as a ‘success story’”
  • Einstein said the Chinese lagged because they never had Euclidean geometry and the idea of proving things. But the better question isn’t why didn’t they start proving things: rather why did anybody start proving things?

No mention of this other story I heard which was, rather than broad historical determinism, specifically just that the eunuchs in the 13th century sabotaged all the ships in the harbour to fight their enemies, the Mandarins. Local maximum achieved; global maximum put off for at least another 7 centuries.


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