Tuesday, 13 October 2015

acculturation and ascendency

Just recently I learnt that there is a yet unfolding what to frame the inquiry as to why—given that the Chinese invented the most uncontestably useful and revolutionary innovations in world history, the compass, the stirrup, weirs and dams and locks to allow for inland navigation, porcelain, the spinning wheel, the printed word and gunpowder—China did not continue on the same trajectory in scientific and technological achievement and was overtaken culturally and demographically (by most estimates) by Western Europe with their Age of Exploration, Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution, fueled in large part by the introduction of such ancient Chinese secrets to the West. The so called “Needham Question” was posed first in the early 1950s by biochemist and China-scholar Noel Joseph Terence Montgomery Needham and sought answers to this conundrum at a time when many Westerners believed the above modern hallmarks were Western inventions, and whose extensive research into the question is yet being unpacked. Given that I was under the impression that China was only interested in gunpowder for dazzling pyrotechnic displays and religious ceremonies (something facetious to believe really, like saying after inventing democracy, philosophy and the fine arts, the Greeks decided to call it a day) and it was Europeans who weaponised it, I suppose it would be wise to explore how such misconceptions come about and perhaps why such advances were not entirely seismic—at least seen through the lens of the occident and the focal point of centuries on.

Though not entirely a monolithic geopolitical landscape at any point in its history, China was a highly bureaucratic meritocracy that spanned a land-mass the size of Europe, which was then a fractious space filled with hundreds of petty kingdoms that would like nothing better than to blow one another to smithereens. Paper and the printing-press were certainly drastic and sweeping when introduced to Europeans, but in China an entire book-culture had already been cultivated for nearly a thousand years (by the time it had reached Europe) and every household had at least a small library. Not that reading was just a sedate pastime but cultural alignment under the Emperor with regimented social order and the lack of subversive elements (depending of course on one’s perspective) printing pamphlets and broadsides shone the presses in a quite different light. It remains very much an open question, ripe for thought, with some arguing that the state fostered a climate in which conscientious bureaucrats were rewarded above all else—discouraging scientific and engineering ambitions beyond what maintained hierarchical cohesion. Others believe that the nature of Chinese religion, which was non-exclusive whereas Christendom was violently so, was not conducive of competition nor of scientific inquiry over metaphysical thought—though holding those precepts hardly sound true for Taoism or Buddhism. Yet others believe—which may be tending in the right direction but makes China out to be a frail place, that the forced-opening of markets, prizing into a self-sufficient economy, and colonisation threw the Empire into social chaos, for which it could not adapt native resourcefulness. Maybe, however, we view China and Asia as a whole like all “faded glory” vis-à-vis its present presentiments—a threatening dynamo that’s subsumed all the things we’ve declared ourselves inefficient for, another level of faded glory—which seems a dangerous standard to grade things by. What do you think? It is not as if China is no longer inventing things and ought to make the Western world wonder about its privileged position.  Did China not have its enlightenment because it neglected to harness the power of steam, which incidentally was another Greek discovery (the æolipile), some two thousand years old?