Chapter 2 Bonus: Why Not China?

In the first bonus episode of the podcast, I want to quickly give you an overview of scientific and technological history in China, and explore the so-called “Needham Question.” Why wasn’t it China that conquered the world and started the Industrial Revolutions?

Sources for this episode include:

Ferguson, Niall. The Accent of Money: A Financial History of the World. Penguin Books. 2008.

Frankopan, Peter. The Silk Roads: A New History of the World. Vintage. 2015.

Landes, David S. The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some Are So Poor. W.W. Norton & Company. 1998.

Lin, Justin. “The Needham Puzzle: Why the Industrial Revolution Did Not Originate in China.” Economic Development and Cultural Change, vol. 43, no. 2, 1995, pp. 269–292.

Little, Daniel. "Chapter 8: The high-level equilibrium trap." Microfoundations, Method and Causation. Transaction Publishers. 1998

Mann, Charles C. 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created. Knopf. 2011.

Montgomery, Laszlo. “The Four Great Inventions.” The China History Podcast. 2010.

Sivin, Nathan. "Why the Scientific Revolution Did Not Take Place in China—or Didn't It?" Chinese Science. 1982 (Revised 2005).

Wood, Michael. “The Story of China.” British Broadcasting Corporation, Mandarin Film Productions. 2016.

Full Transcript

This is the Industrial Revolutions.

Chapter 2 Bonus: “Why Not China?”


Later this week, we’re going to talk about the age of European empires, and how their conquests fed into the Industrial Revolutions. In particular, I’m going to explain why the new world was unable to fend off the old. You see, if global empires were going to be created, they were always going to come out of the Eurasian landmass.

But why Europe?

In Chapter 2, I discussed a little how Europe came back from the Dark Ages to set itself up for empires and later for industrialization. But I want to take a few minutes to explore why this didn’t all happen somewhere else on the Eurasian landmass.

In particular, I want to explore why it didn’t happen in China.

Because, as I mentioned, a lot of the developments that pulled Europeans out of the darkness actually originated in China.

Before we begin, let me just note that I will likely be mispronouncing some of the names and places in this episode. In fact, I will definitely be mispronouncing names and places throughout this podcast. This is partly because I’m reading them on a page instead of listening to them, and partly because my Midwestern accent is still oddly strong with some words.

And it’s not just going to be mispronunciations. Chances are I’m going to get some facts wrong over the course of this series, or I’ll (unintentionally) neglect to include some alternative points of view. Feel free to let me know as this happens. Really, I think it’s important.

You can alert me on Twitter at INDREVPOD (that’s @ I-N-D – R-E-V – P-O-D) and if what you tell me checks out, I’ll include your correction with a shout out in the next bonus episode.

Okay, let’s get to the history.

Toward the end of Chapter 1, I mentioned how the Chinese had domesticated pigs, chickens, and rice, and how they may have even invented writing independently of the writing system that came out of the Fertile Crescent. I also mentioned that they started minting coins, and although they were not the absolute first to do it, they did it on a wider scale than other societies.

They also started inventing dozens of products that would not become known in the West for hundreds or even thousands of years. These ancient Chinese secrets – and, yeah, they were literally kept secret a lot of the time – included lacquer, cast iron, the crossbow, the parachute, wheel barrels, suspension bridges, fishing reels, umbrellas, steel, matches, paper currency, and of course, tea, silk, and porcelain (or, as we call it, “china.”)

And those are just the little ones.

Perhaps the most significant thing China figured out was row cultivation, and intensive hoeing, which led to significantly improved agricultural productivity. They figured this out 2200 years before the Europeans did. And if you want to know why China was so advanced during these years while Europe was not, this is probably the best place to point the finger.

China was the best-fed civilization in the world. That meant food surpluses. That meant they could support specialization – more people devoting their time and energies to new ideas.

Among them were what China calls the Four Great Inventions.

The first was paper, invented in the 2nd Century BC. At the time, it was used mostly for wrapping stuff or wiping stuff, less so for writing on. That’s because it was bark paper – thick, coarse, and uneven. That changed when one Cai Lun – a eunuch in the Eastern Han Dynasty – figured out how to add materials like hemp, cloth rags, and fish nets to the process to make the bark more like the paper we know today.

This was in the early 2nd Century AD. It wasn’t until 600 years later that some Tang Dynasty paper makers were captured by the Arabs at the Battle of Samarkand. The Arabs subsequently set up paper factories of their own and sold paper to the Europeans. By the 12th Century, the Europeans figured out how to make it themselves. By this point, they were unaware the invention had come out of the great Chinese civilization in the east.

By the 8th Century AD, the Chinese made another big advancement for using that paper. Buddhists had started carving Chinese characters out of wooden blocks so they could be covered in ink and applied to a page. They had invented printing. A century later, a Chinese translation of the Diamond Sutra became the first known full book printed. It’s still preserved today in a temple in South Korea.

By the time of the Song Dynasty – a great Renaissance period of Chinese history – a writing culture had been developed. You could get books of poetry, literature, and scientific thought. There were cook books and even self-help books.

But like I mentioned in Chapter 2, printing did not have the same transformative effect in China as it did in Europe. Creating wooden blocks for a single page was time consuming and presumably expensive. It wasn’t like Gutenberg’s invention: movable type.

Except around 1040, a guy name Bi Sheng did invent movable type for printing in China, using clay pieces for the Chinese characters. The problem was there were way too many characters. To make a print in English, you need to navigate an alphabet of 26 Latin letters to build your page. There are thousands of characters in Traditional Chinese. It actually was easier for them to just make woodblocks instead.

So, it was the sophistication of the Chinese written word was actually what made it difficult for them to disseminate knowledge.

Fast forward to the 20th Century, and you could see this problem with the Chinese typewriter. It’s an enormous machine, and typing a simple sentence took forever. It’s no wonder that Chairman Mao decided to force Simplified Chinese down everyone’s throats during the Cultural Revolution. If you’d like to see the Chinese typewriter, I’ll go ahead and post a photo of it on Instagram. Oh, hey, the Instagram handle is the same as the Twitter handle! @ I-N-D – R-E-V – P-O-D.

By the way, the Renaissance of the Song Dynasty should underscore so much of why this episode is important, because they were a good 500 years ahead of the Europeans in the arts, sciences, and civil society. Not only did they print millions of books, they came up with a Theory of Evolution and a Theory of Geological Time. They created a civil service system that advanced bureaucrats through procedures of meritocracy rather than aristocracy.

They even had their Renaissance Men, like the great Su Song: An engineer, astronomer, and poet, who also wrote about mineralogy, zoology, and pharmacology. He designed a giant mechanical water clock, hundreds of years before the mechanical clocks of European monasteries that I mentioned in Chapter 2.

In Chapter 2, I also talked a bit about the third of the Four Great Inventions: gunpowder. Legend is that it was invented in the 9th Century by a Chinese alchemist trying to find the elixir for immortality. Sounds quintessentially European. It’s also a bit of irony that someone trying to find a cure for death would create the cause of so much of it.

Some proto version of gunpowder had been around for hundreds of years by this point. By the 2nd Century, something resembling fireworks is described in Chinese texts. But the correct proportions of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter were perfected in 1048. Again, this is during the Song Dynasty, when they also invented cannons, rockets, and metal-barreled guns.

Every once in a while, China would face some kind of civil strife or threat from the north. But it wasn’t like in Europe, where war and competition between equal kings was pretty much constant. There was never that same sense of urgency in China to improve on gunpowder-based technology.

The last of the Four Great Inventions is the Compass.

We first see the compass in the 4th Century BC, which looks like a giant spoon resting on a bronze square. I’ll post an image on Instagram. As you can imagine, it’s not yet a great compass. But around 70 or 80 AD, they replaced the big spoon with a little needle, making it more accurate and more practical for navigation.

This would come in handy during the adventures of Admiral Zheng He, who led a series of voyages as far west as Africa during the Ming Dynasty, not long before the Europeans kick-start their own age of exploration. On huge ships, they brought back treasurers and animals from all over the shores of the Indian Ocean. This was a bit of showing off to their trading partners in Persia, suggesting they could maybe circumvent the ancient trading route of the Silk Roads.

So China has great agriculture, a specialized economy, good administration of society, technological advancement, learning, and even the tools for exploration and conquest. So why didn’t the global empires and Industrial Revolutions start there?

As it turns out, this is a question that gets asked a lot. It’s known as the Needham Question, posed by British scholar Joseph Needham, who devoted his career to Chinese history and biochemistry.

A fascinating answer to Needham’s question comes from Justin Lin, who blamed China’s civil service examinations and criteria for promotion in the imperial bureaucracy. He says it encouraged the most educated Chinese to focus on climbing the ladder rather than investing time in practical, industrial inventions at a time when history was ripe for industrialization.

Others answer the question by stressing the cultural differences between Chinese and European society. The late Harvard professor David Landes chalked it up to three main issues: (1) Imperial China never had a free market system with private property rights; (2) Women in China were discouraged from working outside the home; and (3) China aborted technological advancement for totalitarian control. Publications depended on government initiative and Confucian ideology discouraged dissent and new ideas.

To me, none of these explanations hold water, because the exact same things could be said of Europe for most of history too – just substitute the word Confucian with Christian.

Landes was the guy who devoted his life to explaining why white Anglo-Saxon protestants were superior to everybody else in the world. He proudly accepted the Eurocentric label. As far as his academic work goes, he was really good at compiling information, which is why I’ll be using his books for source material during this podcast. But he was really bad at analyzing said information in a scholarly way.

Others looked at Chinese culture – and Confucianism – in terms of the value it placed on social harmony. This was part of Mark Elvin’s explanation in his “High-Equilibrium Trap” theory, which notes that Taoism encouraged scientific exploration, but that the Ming and Qing Dynasties prioritized the teachings of Confucius in order to stabilize the political order.

Most of Elvin’s theory, though, focuses on historical circumstances unrelated to culture. In a future episode, we’ll be talking about a guy named Thomas Malthus and the so-called Malthusian trap. Elvin suggests China was caught in something similar, where the peasants were surviving on subsistence farming and unable to save for big capital investments in practical, industrial technologies.

Cheap labor encourages producers to add labor-based inputs to their industry, not capital-based technological inputs. In other words, to produce more cloth the solution was simply to hire more workers – not to invest in a new machine.

To be fair to Elvin, it is at a time when English farmers broke that Malthusian trap that the Industrial Revolutions take off. But historian Robert C. Allen warns against the assumption that industrial labor simply replaced subsistence farming in England. Again, that’s for a future episode.

Elvin’s analysis reminds us how close China was to industrialization, because just like in England, they were producing cotton-based cloths in cottage industry. He also notes that China had a very effective system of internal trade.

But maybe that was a problem.

In his excellent BBC slash PBS series, the Story of China, historian Michael Wood examines a critical moment after Zheng He’s epic naval expeditions. The Ming Dynasty was facing external pressures from their old foes, the Mongols, a very-much land-based conquering force. So, the government invested heavily in the army. Not in the navy.

After all, while Zheng He brought back cool stuff, it’s not like he ever found anything China needed that it didn’t already have. As Jack Goldstone put it, for the same reason the United States stopped sending men to the moon – there was nothing there to justify the costs of such voyages.”

When Europeans powers stumbled across Africa and the Americas, they felt the pressures of a free-for-all. If Spain didn’t conquer some territory they found, the Netherlands would. China was the absolute hedgemon of their part of the world, and didn’t see any need to compete with their neighbors for naval conquest.

Matteo Ricci was an Italian missionary who devoted his life to bringing the Catholic faith to China in the 16th and 17th centuries. He admired the Chinese for their relatively peaceful outlook and noted how their huge territory and the commerce within it led to a sense of insularity.

Comparing the Chinese to the Europeans, he noted, “though they have a well-equipped army and navy that could easily conquer the neighboring nations, neither the king nor his people ever think of waging wars of aggression. In this respect, it seems to me that they are very different from the peoples of Europe, who are forever disturbing their neighbors and entirely consumed with the idea of supreme domination. The extent of the Chinese kingdom is so vast, its borders are so distant, and yet the lack of knowledge about the world beyond its oceans is so complete that they think their kingdom includes the entire world.”

As a result, it was European powers that would find the Americas and set up a global network of trade. Come back Friday to learn all about it. One of the things we’ll be discussing is the silver mine at Potosí in modern day Bolivia and the impact it had on European history. But let me tell you quickly what it did in Chinese history.

China began trading with the Netherlands and with Spain, who set up a very important colony in the modern-day Philippines called Manila. They shipped the silver from Potosí to Manila, and then up to southern China to buy goods like porcelain.

Silver flooded the Chinese market and led to inflation, which the government was never adept at managing, and it increased income inequality, creating civil unrest. All of this was followed by massive flooding on the Yellow River in 1642, killing over 300,000 people. In all the chaos, Manchurian invaders swept in from the northeast, replacing the Ming Dynasty with the Qing Dynasty.

At first, the Qing Dynasty was expansionary, pushing the traditional borders of the kingdom far west and north. In addition to Manchuria, Chinese territory would soon include Tibet, Xinjiang, modern-day Mongolia and parts of modern-day Russia. Trade to the wider world also expanded and new economic concepts like stockholder corporations took hold.

But to China, trade was a peaceful pursuit. By the 1700s, they hardly had a navy. To the Europeans, though, trade was about domination. And more and more, they forced their terms of trade on the world, including on China.

The most shameful example came during the early years of the first Industrial Revolution. Great Britain was importing a lot of tea from China – you know how the British are with their tea – but not selling much to China in return. Concerned about the huge trade deficit, the British started using their infamous East India Company to smuggle one of their less face-saving products of the subcontinent into China. Opium. Using their military might to strong-arm China into it, the British cultivated a market of addicts. By the 1820s, as the benefits of industrialization spread from Britain to other advanced societies, China was too stoned to take advantage of it.

Finally, I want to let you know about the response to the Needham question that Nathan Sivin wrote in an interesting 1982 essay in Chinese Science. His answer boils down to this: it’s a bad question. I mean, how do you even answer a counterfactual question? As he put it, technological questions, “tell us nothing at all about what we can expect to learn from one culture or the other.” Just because scientific advancements happen in two different places, doesn’t mean the results are going to be the same in two places, even if you ignore cultural differences between the societies.

This is going to be important to remember in Chapter 4. Because the Industrial Revolutions don’t just start in Europe, they start on the island of Great Britain in particular. And as we’ll see, that island’s particular history after the Black Death – including its agricultural endeavors, the proximity of its mining resources, it’s unique religious order and conflicts, and its geographic political position – all had a profound impact on what was to come. Take any one of those variables out of the equation, and it’s possible there is no Industrial Revolution, and we’re all still peasant farmers.

If you haven’t already, please subscribe to the podcast on whatever device you are using and to the newsletter at www.IndustrialRevolutionsPod.com. Did I mention the podcast was on social media? Yes. Yes, I did. Follow @IndRevPod – that’s @ I-N-D – R-E-V – P-O-D – on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. By the way, if you’re interested in learning more about Chinese history via the podcast medium, allow me to recommend to you the China History Podcast by Laszlo Montgomery. See you Friday.

Dave Broker