The Genius of China

2007 Robert Temple

The book 1491 mentions this book, with an interesting story about the moldboard plow, invented in long ago in China, finally reaching Europe and revolutionizing Western agriculture. I borrowed "Genius" from the library, hoping to learn more about the behavior of plows; what I found was academic proof of China's many "firsts", and a lot of beautiful old pictures as added proof, but nothing like a descriptive drawing of a plow, or most of the other inventions. I still don't know how a plow (or other inventions) actually works, with the detail necessary to build one.

I draw my lines differently than "Chinese" versus "European" - I'm more interested in "inventors" versus "other", and in individual stories. Neither ethnicity or priority has much to do with it. I want to know how those individuals made their intellectual journey, how their invention found users when others failed.

Who "invented" movable type? Someone who taught the artisan who made the Phaestos disk? Someone in China? Johannes Gutenburg? AFAIK, these and many others "invented"; connecting phenomena through inspiration in a fortunate era when materials and markets were available. Gutenburg almost certainly wasn't the first European "inventor" of movable type for printing on paper - he was lucky enough to do his work when the clothing of plague victims was available for papermaking, and the Catholic Church was looking for a cheap way to produce indulgences. Gutenburg's story is incomplete, but we know he struck coins before producing type, a very similar technology. Indeed, struck coins are an ancient form of block printing, and the anticedents of paper printing almost surely pass through coining technologies.

Some of the stories compare apples and oranges. Pascal's triangle of binary coefficient values was well known long before Pascal - what Pascal did is make a formula out of it, rather than repetitively computing the sums. I can use N!/M!(N-M!) to compute the coefficients of any node in the diagram without doing a bunch of error-prone precursor sums, and I can simplify the factorials into a much simpler series of integer products. And using the gamma logarithm function, I can accurately estimate the value of that formula for N values of quintillions. A Chinese genius could have reached this useful stage first, if the best Chinese brains had not been imprisoned by academic/bureaucratic Confucianism - or consigned by class and limited opportunity to staring for life at the south end of a north-pointing plow ox.

China has been imprisoned by ineffective social organization for centuries; perhaps they still are to some extent (as are Westerners in their own way). To me, the genius of China is not their past, but their future. The Chinese invest enormous energy educating their children, and even if some of it is ideological nonsense (again, the west is not immune), and some of it is rote, they are awakening millions of minds to discovery and invention, sending their smart young people into the world, and increasingly accepting smart young people from elsewhere. This is thrilling, and makes the future seem very bright indeed.

It goes without saying that a Chinese child should be self confident and capable. This is so because they are human and educated and clever, not because they are Chinese and can recite dates and firsts. China shares many problems with the U.S.; pollution, power, racism, and intolerance. Their government permits (and may encourage) internet bot armies that attack my server. But they are growing in wisdom and shedding ancient prejudices - in the long term, China will have many new things to teach the world, not just past accomplishments to take credit for.

GeniusChina (last edited 2015-01-10 23:35:23 by KeithLofstrom)