Business / Opinion

How China can make it to the next age

By Paul Kirkham (China Daily) Updated: 2014-06-09 07:12

The discoveries that emerged during the Age of Exploration finally put to rest the idea that all wisdom came from the "ancients". The realization that knowledge could be found elsewhere or even created - and therefore that progress could be continuous - marked the beginning of modern times.

Francis Bacon, the Western philosopher credited with establishing the inductive method of scientific inquiry, was among the first to recognize this shift. In Bacon's opinion the three greatest inventions were the magnetic compass, printing and gunpowder.

Interestingly, each of these came from the East. Why it was the West that seemingly took them, developed and refined them and used them to dominate the rest of the world remains a matter of debate. The Western alphabet may have been more suitable for printing, but why did Western navigators armed with guns and guided by the compass needle succeed so much more dramatically than their Eastern counterparts?

What the West was unaware of at the time and still scarcely appreciates today is that the Chinese mariner Zheng He led seven massive expeditions to Arabia and East Africa a century before the endeavors of his more renowned European counterparts helped define the era. The Europeans' tiny flotillas and single ships would have looked pathetic next to his great fleet of warships and trading vessels.

So why did these voyages stop? One reason seems to be that a change of administration led to a change in policy. China's legacy of exploration died with Zheng. In Europe, by contrast, entrepreneurial seafarers could tout their projects from one royal house to another.

Another explanation is that Zheng's expeditions may not have been cost-effective. Tremendously expensive to undertake, they resulted in scant reward. Whereas Europeans sought silks and spices that were worth several times their weight in gold, there was little of value for Chinese traders. Basically, the West had nothing to offer that was worth the effort of such an epic journey.

As a result, for a long time knowledge exchange between East and West was a one-way street. The East was the innovator, the West the imitator - and the West did very well out of this arrangement.

Take, for example, the astonishing trade secrets of the silk industry. In England the climate meant manufacturing had to rely on imported skeins of silk fiber, but the market for fabrics drove improvements in weaving technology that came to better fruition with wool and then cotton. Similarly, attempts to replicate fine porcelain drove pottery manufacture - this, after all, is why we call ceramics "china" - which, like textiles, proved central to the early Industrial Revolution.

Perhaps the first Western innovation that really piqued China's interest was the telescope, which was introduced by Jesuit missionaries in the early 17th century. The military and astronomical applications were obvious, so why had the great Chinese civilization - which had a keen interest in both - not come up with such an invention?

How China can make it to the next age How China can make it to the next age
China sees trade deficit in Feb

Robust trade eases slowdown worries

Previous Page 1 2 Next Page

Hot Topics

Editor's Picks