The Great Wall

Choir on The Great Wall of China, originally uploaded by North Sullivan.

Larger here.

Several recent posts on John’s blog (including this one) have caused me to reflect on China, hence today’s tag search is ‘china’.

I have long been fascinated with China – with its systems of thinking and philosophy, with its martial arts and its history of groundbreaking scientific discoveries. We tend to think of China only in a modern sense: as a backwater country struggling to shake off its communist shackles, or more recently as a fledgling superpower, spreading its wings at the dawn of a new millennium.

But one really needs to take a longer-term view to get a clearer picture of what is going on. Then you see that China is much more like a sleeping giant, finally beginning to stir from a 600-year slumber.

Napoleon Bonaparte understood this well:

Let China sleep for when she awakes, she will shake the world.

And consider an excerpt from a wiki entry on Chinese science and technology:

The history of science and technology in China is both long and rich with science and technological contribution. In antiquity, independent of Greek philosophers and other civilizations, ancient Chinese philosophers made significant advances in science, technology, mathematics, and astronomy. The first recorded observations of comets, solar eclipses, and supernovae were made in China.[1] Traditional Chinese medicine, acupuncture and herbal medicine were also practised.

Among the earliest inventions were the abacus, the “shadow clock”, and the first flying machines such as kites and Kongming lanterns[2] The four Great Inventions of ancient China: the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing, were among the most important technological advances, only known in Europe by the end of the Middle Ages. The Tang dynasty (AD 618 – 906) in particular was a time of great innovation.[2] A good deal of exchange occurred between Western and Chinese discoveries up to the Qing Dynasty.

Many other important inventions, such as the mechanical loom and metallurgy, are also believed to have originated in China. Indeed, the Chinese accurately recorded and documented a solar eclipse in 2137 BC – at a time when Europe was just emerging from the Stone Age. And Leibniz puts his inspiration for the development of calculus down to the Chinese Book of Changes, or I-Ching.

And in terms of global trade, the Chinese were once streets ahead of anyone else. I read a really interesting book a few years ago called 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, by Gavin Menzies. Menzies is a former submarine commander with a unique insight into celestial navigation techniques and a fascination for ancient maps. In the book, he sets out his belief that the Chinese discovered the Americas 70 years before Columbus.

Margaret Flanagan provides the following short review on Amazon:

Menzies makes the fascinating argument that the Chinese discovered the Americas a full 70 years before Columbus. Not only did the Chinese discover America first, but they also, according to the author, established a number of subsequently lost colonies in the Caribbean. Furthermore, he asserts that the Chinese circumnavigated the globe, desalinated water, and perfected the art of cartography. In fact, he believes that most of the renowned European explorers actually sailed with maps charted by the Chinese. Though most historical records were destroyed during centuries of turmoil in the Far East, he manages to cobble together some feasible evidence supporting his controversial conclusions. Sure to cause a stir among historians, this questionable tale of adventure on the high seas will be hotly debated in academic circles.

Whilst it’s a fascinating read, Menzies’ central thesis is widely contested in academic circles. What is not in question, however, is that China was a major international player long before the Europeans conquered the world. It had sophisticated intercontinental trading networks, a vast fleet of ships, accurate maps and a system of tribute in place that made it a political force to be reckoned with.

The bottom line is that China’s relative lack of influence over the last 600 years or so has been an anomaly – an accident of history. One of the less controversial things that Menzies’ book describes is a period of extreme isolationism that was ushered in under the Ming dynasty in 1433 with a ban on maritime commerce. This new, inward-looking China continued under the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). In fact, China is only just emerging from this cycle – the final isolationist phase having been under Mao Zedong, who died in 1976.

So, any conclusions? It would be easy to draw the obvious conclusion – that China is finally emerging from the wilderness and seems likely to become the most powerful country in the world within a generation.

But the world is a very different place 600 years on. Population and environmental sustainability issues are coming into play. And these will get worse with time. We live in a world of finite resources, and China’s growth is inextricably connected to globalisation and the stability of Western economies like the States. Moreover, it has to motor through the industrial phase and become a knowledge economy as quickly as possible, whilst feeding its people, controlling its economy and not completely destroying the environment. Its development is not going to be without some serious teething problems.

But if I were a betting man, I would look at China’s rich history and place my money on them succeeding. And if I were a linguist, I would learn Mandarin.

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