I'm sure you're aware of the book "Escape from Rome" by Walter Scheidel. Scheidel argues that the advantage Europe had was that its geography led to political fragmentation into smaller states in the aftermath of the dissolution of the Western Roman Empire; whereas China consistently reunified after periods of political fragmentation due to its geography and homogeneity. It's not as simple as "big state squelches innovation," which is--no surprise--popular with libertarians*. Rather, that political fragmentation unleashed interstate competition on a greater scale than in China, which was spared those competitive energies due to its size and centralization, which led to more innovation in Europe. In Europe, for example, if one state innovated militarily, other states had to keep up if not improve on those techniques. Small states like the Dutch Republic had to be innovative (e.g. finance & banking) to compete with more powerful states like Spain. If one country didn't want to send out sailing ships to explore, another one would, and so on. I have not yet read the book, so I can't speak to how good its argument is, but it's one that has been made many times even before Scheidel.

As for the conceptual difference, are you familiar with "The Master and His Emissary" by Dr. Iain McGilchrist? What you're describing as Chinese thought--the idea that nothing can be understood except in the context of the whole--is associated with the way the right hemisphere of the brain (which controls the left side of the body) sees the world. The idea of breaking the world down into isolated component parts and using instrumental rationality is associated with the Left hemisphere of the brain (which controls the right side of the body). McGilchrist argues that both ways of perception are necessary and that we need both, but we run into trouble when one hemisphere becomes dominant to the exclusion of the other. He argues that one of the characteristics of the left hemisphere is an inability to see its own limitations and it often suppresses the activities of the right hemisphere (the 'Master' and the 'emissary' in his depiction.) Furthermore, cultures and historical periods can be understood in terms of which way of seeing the world predominates. It's a magisterial work of 1,000-plus pages, so any summary is, of course, inadequate. There's a popular RSA animation which provides a summary: https://youtu.be/dFs9WO2B8uI

* Of course, historians have shown that Great Britain, where the Industrial Revolution began, had a strong centralized state which could do things like protect property rights, issue patents, hold contests to develop technologies for its navy, and so on; and that--contra libertarianism--strong states foster innovation whereas weak states do not.

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Perhaps the paradox of China's eclipse can be explained through more humdrum political events, particularly the divided nature of the European population, which would militate against any force that might slow technological growth. Hard to see how the French could have burned their treasure fleets in the same way that the Chinese did. The fact that so many European countries were so constantly at war with one another, particularly the Thirty years war, naturally drove innovation, particularly military innovation. Paradoxically, one could argue that the generally unified state of China was advantageous until it ceased to be so due to its monopoly on technological growth and its ability to forestall it whenever necessary.

Additionally, there is the issue of Chinese characters and how much more challenging it is to create a printing press to spread literacy and ideas in this sort of environment.

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Aug 14, 2023·edited Aug 14, 2023

The story of early progress followed by relative stagnation occurs in unexpected places. Chess originated in India and evolved into various forms across Asia and Europe. The Chinese version is xiangxi. I once saw a xiangxi game from the 1300s written up in a chess column in the Spectator, and it was far more intricate and clever than any medieval European game of chess I had seen (indeed, very few games of European medieval chess were recorded). In the 17th century there were a couple of really good xiangxi anthologies, The Secret Inside the Orange (1632) and The Plum-Blossom Meter (end of the 1600s). Since then, very few books on xiangxi have come out (so says my copy of Chinese Chess by H.T. Lau, published by the Charles E. Tuttle Company (Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan) in 1985). As far as I can tell, xiangi is still being played more or less the same way as it was in the Ming Dynasty. Meanwhile, the literature on European chess went from a trickle in the 14th-18th centuries to a torrent in the 19th and a flood in the 20th, and chess eventually became the domain of computers and now AI (see Game Changer, Matthew Sadler and Natasha Regan (2019)). There have been multiple waves of new strategies and techniques developed over the past 200 years. In recent years the Chinese have taken their place among the best in the world at the upper reaches of the Western game, though I understand it's not very widely played by the Chinese masses. And there's probably some idiot somewhere who thinks that Chinese skill at the Western game is further proof that they're just skilled imitators.

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On the Needham question--really, two questions: the scientific revolution; and the industrial revolution, which in its early stages depended very little on science: I am sceptical of mystical philosophy ("conceptions of time", wtf?) as being any kind of cause. My liking for parsimony of explanation (Ockham's Razor) raises my antipathy to that nonsense. There are basic material and life-course reasons for the location of both revolutions.

For science, one key basic is the use of glass lenses. Yes, importantly, for telescopes and microscopes, but more fundamentally for spectacles. Correcting presbyopia would double or triple the productivity of a scientific researcher or writer in the second half or three-quarters of his career, when knowledge and experience can be brought to bear most effectively, especially in transmitting the process knowledge of scientific practice.

For the industrial revolution most writers ignore the question of demand, or treat it most cursorily. Yet it is crucial. While Samuel Johnson was wrong when he said "no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money", he would not have been wrong if he had said this about making petticoats or candlesticks or curtains or mirrors. Making those things doesn't give you social prestige, which is the reward for writing.

As Emmanuel Todd tells us at exhaustive and exhausting length, family structure differed in preindustrial China and England. There are a few features of the nuclear family and English custom that increase demand over that to be expected in the Chinese system, patrilocal communitarianism in Todds' jargon.

First, in preindustrial England many young women spent years in service in wealthy households before forming their own household, so they got to see all these material possessions and therefore to desire them. Then they formed their own households.

At the point of forming a household, a newlywed English couple was free to move away from their parents' locality if there were better opportunities (greater income) elsewhere. So there was latent demand for mass produced goods, and the possibility of realising that demand.

In China, by contrast, women joined their husbands' households as teenagers, and the couple lived together with the husband's brothers, their wives, and their unmarried sisters, in a household headed by the husband's father.

There was little opportunity for Chinese women to experience the lifestyles of the rich, and nothing they could do to realise any such ambition anyway. Their husband's father would forestall and frustrate any such aspirations, and they were trapped in place.

So in China there was little demand, latent or real, for mass produced household goods.

Tony Wrigley points out that, having started by using human and some animal muscle power, yes, the industrial revolution was _sustained_ by access to non-biological sources of energy. But it was necessary for it to start, first, and for that there had to be demand.

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Your idea sounds a bit like James Burke's in the series Connections (Episode 3)


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A book that seems relevant to your theory about Chinese vs Western science is “The Rise of Modern Science Explained: A Comparative History” by H. Floris Cohen, who goes into some interesting details about these differences as well as differences within different traditions in Europe and China

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Didn't the ancient Greeks also have the idea/ideal of nature as separate? I agree that the idea exploded with the Reformation, but I think it was already important. But I like your analysis, sometimes a separate nature is useful, sometimes a hinderance. Daoists pioneered the idea of each individual having a unique nature, though not separate--connected in infinitely unique ways.

On the Needham Puzzle, I think it is making the assumption of science over technology. Industrial commerce started with antique markets in Song China, progressed to ceramics sold on treasure ships, was curtailed but re-emerged in the 1590s at the time trading with Europe exploded, in the form of ceramics, nails, printing, silk, etc... It was the wars that established the Qing Dynasty which retarded industrial commerce at the very time it began in Europe. After the invention of the steam engine which was first used in mines and metallurgy, industrial commerce exploded.

Science was more of a consequence of commerce and technology than the other way around.

Also, Bibical time was replaced by scientific time only after encountering the Chinese alternative timeline in the letters of Matteo Ricci (probably a gay Jewish convert, but that is another story). Great stuff, thanks for letting me share my theories!

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Industrial Commerce is fragile. That's the answer to the Needham Puzzle.

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Great thinking incarnated by great writing. Bravo.

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I read some time ago a theory that the Chinese fell behind because they failed to develop optics and the lens, so no microscopes or telescopes, or spectacles. I do like the idea that their holistic belief in harmony versus the West’s post Reformation pursuit of analysis is key, and that in fact now the pendulum may be swinging the other way, from ever tinier particles back to waves and fields.

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There is a great section in Lewis Mumford's "Technics and Society" where he talks about how much optics, glass, and mirrors contributed to the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

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Simon Winchester has a bio about Needham that makes for a pretty good audiobook (like most Winchester joints because he narrates), although he unsurprisingly defended Needham's Communist sympathies

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An interesting aspect of Chinese cosmology is the Yijing which is often used in precisely the way you propose in your answer to the Needham question: a method to eliminate unpredictability from the cosmos by incorporating it into a unifying order, in which yin always swings back to yang, disharmonies tend to resolve themselves and so on. I believe this was part of Needham's claim about the cyclical nature of time in China.

An interesting aspect of this is that Han dynasty elites were aware this was a psychological illusion! They consciously invented a more complex text, Taixuanjing, in order to more effectively manipulate their cognitive processes and heighten the creativity produced from randomness. However the Neo-Confucian/Zhu Xi school, which as you've noticed was 1500 years later and therefore a different ethnic background, had completely forgotten this more agnostic hermeneutic and started to consider the antiquity of the Yijing as proof of its sanctity and authority. Their devotion to antiquity was therefore hardening at precisely the time when Europe was, for better or for worse, escaping inherited assumptions about the natural world, justice, economics and so on.

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