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The West's Debt to China?

Randy Smith - Monterey Peninsula College

As scholars and citizens of the world understand more of the inter-relationships of cultures, we gain an appreciation of the evolution of civilization as a cross-fertilization of many cultures over the few thousand years of recorded history. I am intrigued about the process of sharing of information and discovery among societies, often separated by distance, language and value systems. As we discover the remarkable advances in science and technology in ancient China, we immediately attempt to make connections in information transfer to other parts of the world. How much discovery was shared with the West, or were similar discoveries independent? Perhaps the circumstances of early discovery and invention in China do not constitute a debt, since so many inventions were not widely used, transferred, or used as a basis for additional discovery. However, it is instructive to note the early Chinese advancement in so many fields. Other directions that should be explored include questions about why the early Chinese technology so often died out. Why indeed did progress stall at about the time when Western civilization was awakening from their Dark Ages?

Information in the form of invention and discovery is often shared (or incorporated) due to the nature of the perceived value to others. Technology exchange can begin any time new ideas are demonstrated, and of course no records exist for the vast number of interactions of civilizations over the centuries. Marco Polo's travels to China in the 13th century offered Western society a look at undiscovered (to them) goods and ideas. Ideas and inventions often were added to the "native" culture with little notice of the origination. One of the greatest secrets of history is the immense contribution of Chinese society to the Western world. Equally interesting, is the failure of some discovery in China to cross over to Western civilization, or even to survive into modern times. For example, a small pox vaccination was used in China in the 10th century, and then 800 years later in the West. However, the practice of modern diagnostic medicine was not widespread in China in more modern times. The mechanical clock was invented in China in the 8th century, and then independently in Europe in 1310. When the Chinese imperial court was shown a mechanical clock by Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century, the scholars were awestruck.

It seems that much of Western and Eastern knowledge of Chinese contributions have either been forgotten or overlooked. The Encyclopedia Britannica, 1999, describes in the history of the magnetic compass, that the Chinese were using the magnetic compass around AD 1100, western Europeans by 1187, Arabs by 1220, and Scandinavians by 1300. But we know that Chinese ships reached the east coast of India prior to 1000 with help of the navigational compass.

Early in 2003, a fascinating speculative chronicle on Chinese discovery ( 1421: The Year China Discovered America) was released by the British author/historian/mariner Gavin Menzies, detailing evidence for Chinese exploration of the globe. The voyages of the massive fleet of the explorer Zheng He, sailing west from China in the fifteenth century is a fascinating story. The author speculates and makes a strong case for Chinese exploration succeeding well beyond what is commonly taught World History (and unfortunately this important Asian history is often completely overlooked). Circumstances and artifacts in several locales serve to support Menzies' case, but much more scrutiny of facts in evidence will be required to validate some of his assertions. However the value in critically examining new ideas expands our understanding, and should not be interpreted as glorification of a specific culture, degrading another, or as gratuitous inclusion of some minority position.

As so much of Chinese history and culture have been buried by the centuries and purged by tyrants, arguments for history are developed by research and conjecture almost totally dependent on circumstantial evidence. My own interpretations of some of this history is presented with a desire to stimulate interest in not only the events and accomplishments, but also the process of using knowledge gained to better the current and future world. Knowledge can be a laudable achievement in its own right, and the application for technology to enhance life quality is often the next step to benefit civilization. I am interested here in what was achieved, how it was used, what was transferred to other cultures, and why sometimes the early discoveries did not lead to even more achievement.

It really is more accurate to think of accumulation of knowledge of history and culture to be a synthesis of East and West. Combined in an all-pervading fusion of beliefs and understanding, often masked by ignorance and language, we try to explain ideas and culture in terms of the familiar. For example, when examining novel inventions, it is not prudent to assume that this demonstrated technology is a byproduct of applied science. In fact science may be missing in the "discovery" process. Design and production trumped controlled experimentation, theoretical study, and scientific processes. Such often was the case with some of the early Chinese inventions. It seems that they often "knew" a lot more than they understood. The scientific method, and necessary steps for validation of theories with observations was seldom employed. Historically, China's approach to applied science followed the utilitarian view of technology development.

Throughout history, dynasties in China have arisen to set contemporary standards in terms of military might, population unification, and accomplishments in technology, arts and literature. However, the world-wide influence has often been minimized due to policies of self-imposed isolation. Inventions and discovery should contribute to the well-being of humanity, but historically in China they have been guarded, inaccessible, and purged at the whim of leaders. Jia Hepeng writing in the online publication Science and Development Network makes a case that China's innovation system is not fully developed and inadequately integrated. He describes the system as an "archipelago", a large number of "innovative islands" with insufficient links between them. Unfortuanately, the collective behavior of modern China too closely matches their history. Optimistically, we look forward to successful innovation in modern China that is used to improve conditions globally.

This publication of some of the contributions of China for invention and discovery is an on-going hobby of research into documents that will help to uncover some of these historical mysteries. Much of the ideas and contributions have been taken from the works of Joseph Needham, begun in Cambridge in 1948, and published in many volumes of Science and Civilisation in China (1954-1985). I have cited numerous passages from Robert Temple's The Genius of China - 3,000 years of science, discovery and invention (1986, Simon and Schuster). The timeline is constructed to help us to develop relations and connections of history that can help reach an understanding of how knowledge has been gained, and sometimes lost. Needham's original texts were not available to me for this rather cursory survey, and I often relied on Temple's interpretations, which are sometimes lacking in supporting facts. However, the examples of Chinese Scientism and statements of later Western implementation will hopefully serve as a discussion point for a more detailed query into the connections of ideas leading to worldwide technology. Consider Needham's and Temple's list of discoveries and inventions by categories below, that have contributed so much to world societies.


Astronomy & Cartography


Domestic & Industrial Technology

Medicine & Health



The Physical Sciences

Transport & Exploration

Sound & Music


Robert Temple , "The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery and Invention"
Joseph Needham , "Science and Civilisation in China"
Bibliography used for this research

I do not intend this site to be a blind testimonial to some supremacist view of Eastern technology. I am aware that Needham and Temple are often overly enthusiastic regarding their views of Chinese achievements pre-dating some of the West. Often the "discovery" was only an implementation of some aspect of technology with little or no development of the science. Some questions that I would like to explore include:

What were the major factors that turned the advanced civilization (on a large scale) of China two thousand years ago, into the more comparatively undeveloped status of today?
Why were some of the major discoveries of China not refined and advanced to accelerate into more and more technological achievements?
Did the absence of a period of Dark Ages, and subsequent Renaissance serve to inhibit fast dissemination of achievements?
What part did politics, ethics, religion, international conflict, etc., play on the advancement of technology from discovery to national service?

This site will be used to develop and integrate my impressions with others, and hopefully will serve as a collaboration for readers to share our own ideas. For an interesting analytical discussion of some perceptions of influences in the West and the East, check out THE GREAT DIVERGENCE: EUROPE, CHINA, AND THE MAKING OF THE MODERN WORLD ECONOMY by Kenneth Pomeranz, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2000. A review may be found on the Communications for a Sustainable Future site in an article by A.G. Frank.

A site of great interest from the Center for the Study of Chinese Prehistory explores the fossil evidence for human evolution in China.

As I collect information and resources on Chinese invention and discovery, I would be happy to collaborate with other authors.

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