The Chinese Way

When we try to answer the question of why a country has not reached a certain level development we should look at the country's institutions rather its citizen. Talented humans seem to exist in every country as witnessed by the success of immigrants who move from a backward country to an advanced. A country's institutions can encourage different attitudes amongst its citizens and, not surprisingly, such attitudes cannot be changed overnight.

Here I discuss why science did not develop in China as it did in the West. This is often called the "Needham Problem" ([MORR], p. 475). Needham was very impressed by the first Chinese graduate students to arrive in Cambridge in 1937 and the issue pre-occupied him for the rest of his life. Max Weber's book The Religion of China published in German in 1915 has some answers by focusing on the Chinese institutions rather than individuals. But Weber's theory that I discuss first has some weakness, in particular by focusing too much on the effects of religion. I base my discussion of Weber's theory on the translation by Hans H. Gerth, The Free Press, New York, 1951. All page numbers refer to it, unless otherwise indicated.

Some Facts

Imperial Examinations

At the top of the list is the system of appointing officials based on passing a set of examinations. In principle this is a meritocratic system and much can be said in its favor compared to the systems used in Europe and other parts of Asia. Even when China was split in several states, each state maintained that system. From the viewpoint of the ruler the system had the advantage that no single family (of the nobility) would have too strong an influence in the administration of the realm. The system was a meritocracy, at least amongst those who could afford an education.

A big problem lay with the subject of the examinations. They tested for knowledge of the Chinese classics (ancient wisdom) and, for obvious reasons, there was strong resistance to introducing new material. Therefore all the Chinese officials had spent their youth memorizing the classics. This introduced a conservative tendency in the government.

How Officials were Paid (pp. 61-62)

In the West there was a strong connection between fees paid for a service and the beneficiaries of the service, for example customs, tolls, etc. Therefore the beneficiaries of the service could organize and advocate modifications. In China individual officials were paid by prebends, namely fractions of a particular source of revenue. Therefore they would oppose any change in the system of fee collection because it would affect their income directly. For example, as late as 1898, there was strong opposition to replacing the transporation of goods by barges through the Imperial Canal with the much cheaper way of transporation via oceangoing steamers.

Weak Cities and Strong Clans

In contrast to the West, Chinese cities lacked political autonomy. The local governing was carried through sibs, groups of relatives (clan?) (p. 95). The sibs protected their members so it was hard to have "work discipline." Weber calls them "Fetters (chains) of the Economy." Also a sib was run by its elders and they opposed change as a rule.


The Writing System

In Chinese each character represents a word so there are many thousands of characters that a literate person must memorize. Caligraphy is emphasized. In contrast, Western writing systems consist of few characters (usually less than 30) that must be combined according to rules to form words. One system emphasizes memorization, the other logical thinking. Because reading and are writing are taught to young children one might be speculate that the Chinese writing system cultivated memory while the Western writing systems cultivated reasoning.


Chinese religion developed differently than Middle-Eastern (pp.22-23). The Chinese emperor was also high priest - but emperors in the west were not (p. 26). Tranquility and internal order were paramount (p. 27) Spirits were worshiped but they were considered impersonal.

The Best System (for some time)

The Chinese system was probably the best of its kind in the world when it developed but by discouraging change the country was locked in a time capsule. A good analogy is to think of the Chinese system as a local optimum that makes it difficult to move from it to a global optimum: things have to get worse before they can get better. In this respect it is worth recalling Gibbon's remark: "The most civilized nations of modern Europe issued from the woods of Germany, and in the rude institutions of these barbarians we may still distinguish the original principles of our laws and manners." [Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter 9 (p. 208)]. Morris [MORR} also places a lot of emphasis on the advantage of backwardness.

The sketch on the right is for those not familiar with the concept of a local optimum. Peak A corresponds to a local optimum. To reach the global optimum B one must first go down, something that people may be reluctant to do.

If you find a parking spot that is 1000 feet from the entrance you will probably ignore it and look for a closer one. But if you find a spot only 200 feert from the entrance you may take without looking further and missing a spot that is only 100 feet from the entance.

Can Confucianism be Blamed? Or is Feudalism?

On top of the impediments to change listed above there was the issue of the dominant philosophical outlook. There was no interest in the Natural Sciences. "Under the conditions of patrimonial bureaucracy, the content of the ruling stratum was discharged entirely into competition among prebendary and degree-hunting literati and all other pursuits were stifled" (p. 151). There was no rational science. Only what fitted the bureacracy, the sibs, and the belief in spirits.

Confucianism emphasized adjustement to the world. Puritanism demanded self-control to adjust human desires to God's will. Confucianism praised the natural human obligations to family, teacher, etc.

This explanation does not quite add up. The Chinese did modify nature with large construction projects such as the Great Wall and the Imperial Canal. Also in the West Christian orthodoxy was quite conservative. Why West developed Protestantism (of which Puratinism is a subset) and not China?

One big difference between West and East is that in China the feudal system that had been built up and reinforced for more than two thousand years was too strong to shake it up. In Europe the feudal system was shaken up by the crusades and Renaissance started as the Crusades ended. I repeat the quote from Gibbon "(the crusades were beneficial) not so much in producing a benefit as in removing an evil. ...The estates of the barons were dissipated ... Their poverty extorted from their pride those charters of freedom which unlocked the fetters of the slave, secured the farm of the peasant and the shop of the artificer ...". He concludes the section with a metaphor: "The conflagration which destroyed the tall and barren trees of the forest gave air and scope to the vegetation of the small and nutritive plants of the soil."

In short, China fell behind because there was no shaking up of the feudal system that happen in the West as a result of the Crusades. If there have been a Renaissance in China, the Chinese could have easily imported the old Greek and Arabic knowledge the way North-western Europeans did.

What About the Future?

Den Xiaoping reforms (after the death of Mao Tsetung) is the greatest thing in Chinese modern history. China has gone in a fast paced race to catch up and surpass the West. Will it suceed? Obviously, nobody can make a reliable prediction. Clealry, China has come a long way in catching up with Western Technology, although is not quite there yet. The question is whether it will produce technological innovations. That will require changes in social attitudes and the challenges there are great. A recent article in the Economist points out the misuse of the Western criteria for evaluating academic researchers. The site provides detailed statistics that show that while Chinese scholars produce a lot of scientific papers, relatively few of them are cited.

The local optimum explanation (the basis of the lack of progress in China) haunts now the West. We are very proud of the American system but is the system the best one for the future?

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