I had a brief but interesting conversation with a distinguished Chinese art historian the other day. He’s my age but has been far more successful than me despite relocating to Sweden. We were talking about science and superstition, because apparently someone had described the Swedish Skeptics that I head to him as “The Swedish Anti-Superstition Society”. Anyway, he told me this (and I paraphrase).

“I’m not sure China is going the right way now with its emphasis on Western science, technology and capitalism. Just look at the environmental degradation and rapid urbanisation. If my country hadn’t been forcefully opened to these influences by the Opium Wars, we might have chosen a way of our own.”

He didn’t make it clear just what this Chinese way might have been, other than that it would be less scientific, less technological, less capitalist, not communist, and more like imperial China. Thinking about this, I’ve concluded that he’s getting it all mixed up.

To begin with, there is no such thing as Western science. There is only one world and science is the only semi-reliable way to find out how it works, regardless of what culture you operate in. From this follows that there is no such thing as Western technology. Technology is the application of scientific knowledge to the solution of engineering problems. And so, if China hadn’t lost a war against technologically superior opponents when it did in 1860, it would have lost the next such war. No amount of imperial ceremonies or Buddhist meditation would have helped.

As for capitalism and communism, neither of them is a necessary corollary of scientific and technological advances. Imperial China could have started the scientific revolution long before the 17th century when capitalist Europeans did. But we must remember that although China’s current capitalism and its recently ended communism both led to atrocities, this was in fact a continuation of a tearful history reaching back to the dawn of recorded Chinese history. Being a majority farmer or worker in China has never so far been a pleasant way of life. So my guess is that any continuation of the imperial Chinese civilisation would have been pretty draconian too.

Scientific advances lead to improved technology. And improved technology tends to improve living conditions at the expense of a degraded environment. But the way out of this is to improve technology further, not to sit down and meditate or dream of the lo-tech past.

Comments

  1. #1 Eric Lund
    June 11, 2012

    It’s hard to say how big an effect the counterfactual of no Opium Wars would have had, but I find it unlikely that the Chinese would not have been forcibly opened to Western concepts. Japan was forcibly opened by Commodore Perry’s fleet, and I suspect that the Opium Wars eliminated the need for a similar policy toward China.

    As for the rest of your point: Definitely true. Historically, the only check on China’s rulers has been the possibility of losing the Mandate of Heaven. Things have to get really badly out of hand–much worse than they are now–for a ruler to lose the Mandate of Heaven. I assume that if the present government foresees any scenario under which they would lose the Mandate of Heaven, they will do whatever they can to prevent such a scenario from actually occurring.

  2. #2 PasserBy
    June 11, 2012

    Just my 2 cents, my impression of Chinese science had always been engineering-oriented; they could come up with interesting invention that could work well in what they are intended but they only understand the basic principle behind their invention as they never really cared the deeper implications of their knowledge. Basically, whatever works, works for them

  3. #3 Birger Johansson
    June 11, 2012

    The Chinese -although having far greater intellectual freedom than Europeans for most of their history- did not set much value on novelty. And the inertia of the system would probably have delayed rapid reforms, even if the father of the last emperor (for example) had not been murdered by his reactionary mother.
    — — — — — — — — — —
    I would refer you to the book “The Way and The Word” regarding how the Greek civilisation owned much to the oratory of lawyers arguing cases in a court. The western tradition favoured verbal duels and I can see shopkeepers turned politicians (or adressing “natural philosophy”) fitting well into this tradition.
    The Chinese were more into reading the writings of Wise Men of the past -the culture was assuming things were better in the past, and new ideas must be cloaked as derived from the thinking of the ancients.
    I am not certain to what extent the Chinese intellectual tradition was supported by literate people from outside the landowning class, but my assumption is that they were marginalised. So the system would have favoured status quo right up until the moment the barbarians came swarming over the walls.

  4. #4 Bob Carlson
    June 11, 2012

    Something very strange is going on in the comments (or in my brain?). I was seeing a number of comments, with one by Eric Lund at the bottom of the list (presumably the initial comment given that Martin had opted to have the most recent comment at the top). Anyway, I felt inclined to agree with Eric’s comment, but, at least in this configuration, there is no option of replying to a previous reply. The only comment that is presently visible to me is one by PasserBy.

    It occurs to me that saying that things would have turned out differently in China if there had been no Opium Wars is analogous to saying that the indigenous cultures of the Americas would have turned out completely if Europeans hadn’t discovered the New World.

  5. #5 Martin R
    June 11, 2012

    Birger, that seems to be an interesting book, though I believe the lawyers you mention were Romans and do not enter into that particular argument.

    Bob, yes, WordPress is acting funny (and I don’t know why, ‘scuse me): hiding comments and asking me to remoderate them. Often 30-40 comments at one go, made years ago!

  6. #6 Birger Johansson
    June 12, 2012

    (OT) Martin , your economy planning just got shot to ribbons!
    :-)
    Committee lowers Nobel Prize by 2 million kronor http://www.thelocal.se/41378/20120611/

  7. #7 Martin R
    June 12, 2012

    Damn! I guess I will just have to eat PhD students then.

  8. #8 Birger Johansson
    June 14, 2012

    (OT) Stone Age long barrows housed living as well as dead http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21428670.500-stone-age-long-barrows-housed-living-as-well-as-dead.html
    I just had a vision of Baldric, dressed in a hide and crammed into a slummy barrow with human bones protruding from behind the furniture…

  9. #9 Ian Kemmish
    June 15, 2012

    I remember seeing, way back in the 1970′s, an HSBC advert which featured:

    Western technology: a wood saw which cuts on the “push” stroke;

    Japanese technology: a wood saw which cuts on the “pull” stroke.

    So whether or not science is universal, technology clearly isn’t.

  10. #10 Martin R
    June 15, 2012

    If the Japanese saw is better then nothing is keeping us from adopting it.

  11. #11 Martin
    June 15, 2012

    It *might* be alright to claim there is only one science, in that there is probably only one objective knowledge set.

    But there are many ways of *doing* science – of finding out how the world works in a reasonably objective, thorough way. I’m not sure that the methods we use in the west are necessarily the best, let alone the only, way of doing science. I would certainly expect to see some, say, evidence for that before assuming it was obvious that there is only One Way, the way the West happens to research.

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