Selling Short on the Song

Dave weighs in on a Clash of Civilizations…

Uber-blogger and professor emeritus at Miskatonic University Brad DeLong has published part of David Landes’ article Why Europe and the West? Why Not China?, in which Landes takes a stab at the old Joseph Needham question about why China got beat by Europe in the tech race. This often reminds me of the game “not it” – usually the one declared the loser is the one who didn’t even know there was a contest in the first place.

This question puts the entire focus on history being a race to the finish between civilizations. Take that logic to the ultimate extreme and you’ll find the racial nationalism of many a BBS that appears to based solely on repeated viewings of the movie Highlander: There can be only one! So let’s all keep in mind that the question itself is loaded and ready for some of the more infamous PKD commenters. Landes’ particular stab at the problem seems to be: “First, China lacked a free market and institutionalized property rights. The Chinese state was always stepping in to interfere with private enterprise — to take over certain activities, to prohibit and inhibit others, to manipulate prices, to exact bribes… The Europeans knew much less of these interferences. Instead, they entered during these centuries into an exciting world of innovation and emulation that challenged and tempted vested interests and kept the forces of conservatism scrambling. Changes were cumulative, news of novelty spread fast and a new sense of progress and achievement replaced an older, effete reverence for authority.”

Landes appears to be borrowing the language of a stock market analyst. Europe is an “exciting” IPO that “challenged” conventional thinking, in contrast to the “scrambling” “effete” conservatives. The Reformation as Google. The Church and monarchs as brick and mortar dinosaurs. Who was pets.com? Manicheism?

Landes’ argument seems to deal in huge generalities, blurring different European culture s, Chinese dynasties and several centuries. And he makes some very unclear distinctions. The Chinese state would “prohibit and inhibit” activities – in other words, pass laws and enforce them? Elizabethan England had plenty of price controls, and the East/West India Companies was always closely tied to the Crown and Parliament. In England, as in China, they often didn’t work.

Meanwhile in Europe, the heresies “made newness a virtue and a source of delight”. Correct me if I wrong, but apparently in Chinese history oppression is a sign of oppression, while in European history the heresies (for which people were opressed and executed) were a sign of “newness” and “delight”. I guess Torquemada was, in fact, the Greenspan of his day, keeping the markets going?

The Chinese “exacted bribes”, while the Canterbury Tales complained about the Pardoner doing… exactly the same, plus condemning you to eternal hellfire. I have never, never had a Chinese official tell me I will burn in Hades for not bribing him. A stupid egg, maybe, but not damned. Not even the most liberal translation of “Mei you” gets you there.

If the response from Landes is “Yes, but see, Chaucer is an example of the European creative genius responding to this injustice with innovation!”, then I would challenge Landes to show me the classical Chinese novel, opera or story that doesn’t deal with corruption. Water Margin/Outlaws of the Marsh, anyone?

As for the question of China not having an Industrial Revolution, I say check out the work of Ken Pomerantz and Bin Wong over at Columbia (links below). Geography and not being a bunch of warring nation states seem like better explanations for China’s different path than some free market revisionism, but more it’s even more important to consider that this is as a good a case as any eurocentrism. To say China failed at “two chances” to match “European achievement” is about as clear an example as I can imagine. When history becomes about meeting one civilization’s standard, it becomes myopic, if not hopelessly biased.

Bonus question: when China enter its “Modern Era”? According to Mao, it was 1840 – the first Opium War. Landes perhaps would say the same. Is that accurate? What about the heady boom of the Song Dynasty? Zheng He’s voyages in the Ming? There’s alot of aspects of “European Modern” scattered across China’s history.

China and Europe 1500-2000 and Beyond: What is Modern?

China, Technology and Change by Lynda Shaffer

Does Modernity Begin With the Song Dynasty?
————————————-

The Discussion: 17 Comments

Besides the excellent points you’ve made, Lisa, I would add that the fundamental flaw with Landres’ essay is the fact that Europe hasn’t beaten China because there is no foreseeable finish line in human history. The West hasn’t ‘beaten’ China any more than Rome ‘beat’ Greece or Greece ‘beat’ Egypt.

October 9, 2006 @ 5:54 am | Comment

Claiming “victory” of the West over Chinese Civilization is like Mongol or Manchus claiming “victory” over the the dominant Chinese culture at the time. Yes, Europeans has been successful last couple of centuries but viewed in the context of Chinese History, it is merely one of the many cyclical shifts that occured. It is hardly time to write the epilogue to the human history.

I think it is highly probable that in the 300 years from now(or until a time humans destroy ourselves!), there will still be a Chinese nation state and culture that’s largely intact. I don’t think anyone can say the same with the same confidence for any of the other nation state. (For example, England as merely a single member of EU)

October 9, 2006 @ 6:35 am | Comment

In my opinion, the factors that made European civilizations successful was in fact present in China during the 19th century. However, the dominant chinese culture was so entrenched and the old ways so powerful, the same forces worked for China for thousands of years, that in the end they were simply insufficient to overcome the opposition from the conservative forces at the time.

View in the context of recent history since the Opium War, Chinese has been fighting the “old ways”, usually very violently and destructively. Even years after proclaiming victory of Communism for the old fuedal ways, Mao felt the resurgence neccesitated the Culture Revolution. The same revolution took Europeans decades. For the Chinese it took 200 years to tear down the house.

Was all the violence and “excess” of the past period necessary and avoidable? I am not sure, but I know chinese certainly wouldn’t be the same if history had happened a different way.

October 9, 2006 @ 6:55 am | Comment

Just to clarify, the above post is from Dave (davesgonechina) – I am but the conduit.

October 9, 2006 @ 7:57 am | Comment

Nice post, Dave!

Good catch on Landes’ glossing over the extent of state interventionism in medieval Europe.

However, Chinese achievement really did *not* match European achievement, on the whole. This is the simple truth. (I wish, I don’t know, that we can somehow move beyond both Eurocentric *and* culturally relativist discourse.)

And (although I haven’t had time to read the articles you linked to at the bottom, so I could very well be wrong) I would be cautious of concluding from the relative wealth and innovation that China experienced during the Song that therefore it was akin to an industrial revolution, or the beginning of modernity. Very cautious.

As for why the Europeans were able to industrialise faster, I’m in agreement with you there. Basically, because they were able to beat the shit out of each other. That’s it in a nutshell, isn’t it? ๐Ÿ˜‰

October 9, 2006 @ 10:10 am | Comment

Good grief, I left alot of typos.

@Sonagi: Exactly my point at the beginning, that it is assuming a “race to the finish between civilizations”. To get historiographic about it, the argument is teleological, assuming that history has a goal (some sort of technological perfection) that societies progress towards.

@Falen: You make some really interesting points.

“In my opinion, the factors that made European civilizations successful was in fact present in China during the 19th century. However, the dominant chinese culture was so entrenched and the old ways so powerful, the same forces worked for China for thousands of years, that in the end they were simply insufficient to overcome the opposition from the conservative forces at the time.”

I agree, alot of “modern” factors had existed in China by the 19th century, though some had come and gone (Ming Dynasty navy – gone). But I don’t think it was the old ways that were the problem: I think the problem was that first China did not have any incentive to be “successful” in the European sense.

“View in the context of recent history since the Opium War, Chinese has been fighting the “old ways”, usually very violently and destructively. Even years after proclaiming victory of Communism for the old fuedal ways, Mao felt the resurgence neccesitated the Culture Revolution. The same revolution took Europeans decades. For the Chinese it took 200 years to tear down the house.”

The other problem: once China realized the Europeans weren’t going away, it turned on its own. Europeans had revolutions to be sure, but they didn’t deride their own culture as inferior. They tore the house down by remodeling room by room compared to the Chinese who took a bulldozer to the whole place and had rubble to live in my afternoon tea.

The big problem with questions like “Why didn’t China have an Industrial Revolution” is that Chinese people ask it themselves and the best answers they have are “blame the old ways” (in other words, their own 5000 years of history is weak and inferior) or “blame the foreign imperialists” (which implies China was too weak and inferior to fight them off). And the question itself is unfair! Chinese people are continuing to measure themselves by some other peoples essays!

October 9, 2006 @ 1:50 pm | Comment

Just to show how Chinese self-perception has been messed up for over century this way:

“Now on the eastern continent there is located the largest of countries with the most fertile of territory, but the most corrupt of governments, and the most disorganized and weakest of peoples. No sooner had those races [from Europe] found out about our internal condition than they got their so-called national imperialism moving, just as swarms of ants attach themselves to what is rank and foul and as ten thousand arrows focus on a target… If we want to oppose the national imperialism of the powers [effectively], rescue China from disaster and save our people, we have no choice but to adopt the policy of pushing our own nationalism. If we are serious about promoting nationalism in China, we have no option but to do it through the renewal of the people.”

– Liang Qichao 1897
“A New People”

October 9, 2006 @ 2:26 pm | Comment

Perhaps there is no set standard of comparison in cultural achivements, but there certainly is for a state’s ability to project power.

By this, military conflict is the fairest measuring stick.

October 9, 2006 @ 3:18 pm | Comment

@davesgonechina

To think you can “remodel the house room by room” is way naive, don’t you think? To make radical change, you must wholly reject the “ancient culture” else you regress into the old ways. In fact, I think the level of entrenchment of Chinese culture was uniquely deep, so deep that any attempt at reforming the culture inevitably bring massive violence and choas. There’s really no possibility of such gradual shift in culture.

The Japan comparison is valid here. Japan was able to reform because the conservative forces was comparatively weak and were overcome by reformers.

In China, it took wars, many of which extremely destructive for the entrenched forces to be weakened enough reformed to even exist. The final nail in the coffin of the old ancient chinese culture, was the Culture Revolution. To that end, it is successful, at an enormous cost.

Today, Chinese culture is in reality is wiped to a clean slate, but at least nobody is looking back.

October 9, 2006 @ 4:50 pm | Comment

@mengtaide2

I agree, all the poems, literatures and art doesn’t mean a thing if you can not even defend yourself. Just look at American Indians and Africans. Is anyone interested in emulating their culture? No, because if you are looking to get annihilated and have your childrens living like cattles at the mercy of superior culture, that’s certainly the way to do so.

Chinese certainly spend too much time producing useless stuff like art, drawing and stupid architectures and not enough guns, ships and cannons.

October 9, 2006 @ 5:00 pm | Comment

@Falen: “To think you can “remodel the house room by room” is way naive, don’t you think? To make radical change, you must wholly reject the “ancient culture” else you regress into the old ways.”

I think you misunderstand what the Enlightenment and modernity have meant for Western civilization. It has been an ongoing process over centuries and has long been rooted in traditional, let’s say Christian and Greek, concepts since the beginning. Even secular humanism rose out of Greek and Christian ideals. Enlightenment thinkers desperately struggled to merge science and traditional faith and values. Newton wrote the Principia Mathematica and then spent the rest of his life steeped in Christian thought and alchemy. Descartes and Kant struggled to reconcile rationalism and empiricism with God and Christian ideals. At no time did European thinkers say “this is all hogwash!” and then systematically adopt the thinking of another culture. What China did at the end of the 19th century, and since, was equivalent to Kant saying “screw this! I’m going Hindu!” and taking all Western thought after that into adopting Hindu philosophy.

The most devastating impact of modernity on China, Japan and Korea has been that they have, to varying degrees, done precisely that. China doesn’t have a lively discussion on how Confucian, Taoist and Buddhist thought is relevant to the modern world. They are seen as irrelevant and inferior to modern China. In contrast, look at how much Greek and classical Western thought still appears in contemporary Western concepts. Western radical breaks ended up being synthesized, to varying degrees, with existing beliefs. China in the 20th century didn’t do that, and that’s where all the insecurity comes from. I await the great Chinese thinker of the 21st century who reminds everyone that Zhuangzi, Mengzi and Laozi have deep insights relevant to supply chain management and political reform. Until then, you’re all trying to be Hindus.

October 9, 2006 @ 6:08 pm | Comment

@Falen: “Chinese certainly spend too much time producing useless stuff like art, drawing and stupid architectures and not enough guns, ships and cannons.”

Forgive me, I thought you were worth talking to until I saw this comment.

How odd. You say art, drawing and architecture are useless if you are “living like cattles at the mercy of superior culture”. Culture IS art, not guns. You’ve made my point for me: a society that sells its culture and identity for survival is a dead society. You illustrate so well that Liang Qichao’s mistake during the Qing reform is the same mistake being made by so many today – judging culture by the ability to make war, not the measure of beauty or grace.

October 9, 2006 @ 6:19 pm | Comment

You make some good points there. But I wouldnโ€™t say that the question itself is invalid. Europe dominated the 19. cent. and the USA the 20. To ask why is just natural. I agree with you that the assumption of some kind of aim in history, like Hegelโ€™s Weltgeist, is not very reasonable and helpful (though quite human). And the conclusion that Europeans are in some way superior is just stupid.

Surely the monocausal explanation of free markets is too simple, but it is one part of the answer (German industrialization jumpstarted in 1870 when the country was united and all the tariffs that still exited between the little states were abolished. Chinas internal tariffs (lijin) werenโ€™t abolished until 1931). There are a lot of other reasons why technological progress in Europe was much faster. Take for example the print industry. Yes, China printed books much earlier than any European country; the difference is that Europeans sometime started to print in the vernacular, and that broadened the range of distribution of knowledge and the discourse.
I also wouldnโ€™t dismiss the worldview of Chinaโ€™s ruling elite too quick as one factor. The animosity of the (Neo-)Confucian elites during the Qing-Dynasty (and the Ming also) towards commerce as the lowest form of all professions -together in one league with dancers and actors- and their belittlement of technological inventions (like the watch) as gimmicks and playthings a serious man should not engage in is important. Most of them werenโ€™t very interested in anything more than their canonical texts and perhaps a little hydraulic engineering or agriculture.

And, to say Europeans never had an iconoclasm like China had it in the 20th cent. is not entirely correct. The first of the modern revolutions, the French one, had a lot of the Elements of the Cultural Revolution. It was not only a political event, but also a cultural. The revolutionaries questioned every element of the old order like religion, folk festival, the calendar etc., and tried to put something new in its place. Surely it didnโ€™t have the scope of the CR.

Besides, I don’t see what your critic in Liang Qichaos text is.

October 9, 2006 @ 7:05 pm | Comment

@Shulan: My critique of Liang Qichao is that the idea that he calls Chinese the “weakest of peoples”, internalizing the stupid idea of Europe being superior. I’d point out that Yan Fu’s translation of Thomas Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics in 1895 had a huge effect on ideas of reform and education, particular Liang’s. Huxley was the godfather of social darwinism, and it’s echoed right here in Falen’s comments on Indians and Africans being destroyed by a superior “culture”. I actually think Liang was brilliant, but the reformers were the beginning of what has been more than a century of throwing the baby out with the bathwater in the name of addressing Chinese “inferiority”.

An interesting way to look at this is to look at Liang Qichao and Mao Zedong’s ideas on education reform. Both were rooted in the idea of Chinese being deficient in someway and losing in a conflict of civilizations. We’re talking about education being founded for most of a century on the idea that Chinese culture and people are inferior to other civilizations. When on Earth did Europe feel that way?

As for the French Revolution, that was France. The rest of Europe did things a bit differently, and again, they didn’t reject Christian or Greek thought to build a society based on a non-Western philosophy. There was a ten year schism with the Catholic Church, ultimately coming back to it – not 100 years of attempting to impose foreign philosophical models.

Another point to remember with Qing rejection of Western tech is that the Manchus were caught in a double bind – as non-Han, they were under pressure, indeed had pledged, to maintain the traditional ways. There is an irony to their narrow worldview being the product of the deal made with foreign rulers to protect China’s culture. For sure, China did suffer a great deal of bloated high officials who resisted any change as a threat to their power, and they contributed hugely to some of the disasters that followed.

October 9, 2006 @ 8:10 pm | Comment

davesgonechina,

Good observation about the misguided directionality and inevitability of social darwinism. This is always the danger when social scientists jump on the latest trendy bandwagon in the natural sciences without thoroughly understanding the science first.

There is nothing inevitable about evolution, and the concept of ‘fitness’ is a fluid one that changes with time in the game of ‘survival of the fittest’. The fittest is not necessarily the strongest or the fastest (or who has the biggest guns). The ultimate sign of success is survival and adapability to change, which is the one constant in life.

If we truly apply darwinist thought to the social sciences, the best explanation for the decline of Chinese civilization is not due to its inherent ‘weakness’ or ‘backwardness’, but rather its inability to adapt to change. Chinese culture had so perfectly adaptated to a relatively constant and closed environment in isolation that it had lost the ability to survive in the face of Western expansionism and technological change.

The long term solution is not to throw out the baby with the bathwater with the wholesale replacement of Chinese culture with superficial transplantion of ‘Western’ ones, as what is considered modern and progressive today may be a sign of obsolesence tomorrow. Guns and cannons and technology may be the path to short-term ‘fitness’, but the ultimate test of success is long-term survival. If the Chinese do not learn this, the turmoil of the last 200 years would have all been for naught.

October 10, 2006 @ 4:29 am | Comment

@davesgonechina

I think there might be a time in the future when Chinese are more prosperous and feels the traditional Chinese culture can be redeemed in some way in the modern world. But for now I think Chinese people still feel deeply betrayed by the “culture” for not bringing about modernity. Afterall, it is simply not possible to explain how a civilization so ahead of others can fell into such sorry state over a period of 500 years. Political and economical factors are simply not sufficient to explain the decline, a more fundamental cultural explanation is needed.

Europeans didn’t need to reject their own culture because progress was organic. There was nothing that really directly threaten their survival like Europeans were to the American Indians and African, and to a lesser extend the Chinese.

Zhuangzi, Mengzi and Laozi or whoever-zi might have certain thinking that’s relevant to modernity. Some academic will probably bend their leg and twist their arm backward explaining how much the traditional thoughts are in fact “modern” and sell books in the process. However, the dominant philosophies and thoughts perpetuated a attitude that inhibited progress.

I think this sense of betrayal was what lead youth to attack their parents and teachers during the Cultural Revolution. Basically anyone who exhibited the traditional ways was viewed as a traitor.

October 10, 2006 @ 5:01 am | Comment

@Falen: “Afterall, it is simply not possible to explain how a civilization so ahead of others can fell into such sorry state over a period of 500 years. Political and economical factors are simply not sufficient to explain the decline, a more fundamental cultural explanation is needed.”

… no, actually, I think historical and economic factors explain pretty much all of it. And I don’t see it as cultural.

“There was nothing that really directly threaten their survival like Europeans were to the American Indians and African, and to a lesser extend the Chinese.”

? What kind of survival are you talking about? Native Americans were the victims of genocide, as in population decline through extermination. Chinese population, on the other hand, has done nothing but rise since 1600.

“However, the dominant philosophies and thoughts perpetuated a attitude that inhibited progress.”

Progress by a European standard. Quit hitting yourself.

“I think this sense of betrayal was what lead youth to attack their parents and teachers during the Cultural Revolution. Basically anyone who exhibited the traditional ways was viewed as a traitor.”

Those youth were taught that sense of betrayal by a Marxist regime, and you can read my next post to see what I think about that.

October 10, 2006 @ 12:37 pm | Comment

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