Were China's problems in the past two centuries due to “missing out” on the industrial age?

Were China's problems in the past two centuries due to “missing out” on the industrial age?



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Until the industrial revolution, China was (mostly) an "advanced" or at least "state of the art" country. That is, until it fell behind the West, starting in the late 18th century.

Recently, China has been making great strides in the current information-driven, computer age. This, one might expect from the country that invented the abacus.

My feeling is that China fell behind the West because it didn't "get" the internal combustion engine. Is this true? Put another way, did China "sit out" the Industrial Revolution from 1780-1920?

To dispute this theory, please provide examples of how Chinese "engines" were comparable in sophistication to similar Western engines between 1780-1920, and then explain why they didn't have the positive impact on Chinese society as their western equivalents.

To support this theory, please give concrete evidence of how China lagged behind Western countries in the use of "engines." For instance, until the year 2000, China's consumption of oil (a key fuel for the internal combustion engine), was 1/25th that of the U.S. on a per capita basis, and only a small fraction of America's on an absolute basis, even though China's population was several times larger.


This is also the subject of the Needham question.

My own sense is that China's best and brightest were long motivated to target administrative careers as their first choice. The famous imperial civil service examinations required candidates to compete in the interpreting the classics, not preparing for new innovations (or "engines", for that matter). Bureaucrats had higher standing in traditional Chinese society than (Western-type) entrepreneurs. (This relative positions applied also to many other societies: the fate of some characters in Naguib Mahfouz' Cairo Trilogy e.g. come to mind too.)

The imperial examination system was abolished only in 1905. PRC universities that do best by our contemporary (Western, post-industrial-age) metrics, such as Peking University, Tsinghua University, and Fudan University were established only in 1898, 1911, and 1905 respectively, which makes them relatively young among their international peers: Various differences in "performance" are perhaps a direct result of that.

Any explanation for why China (or another ancient society) has "missed out" must perhaps consider where that society placed or places its main incentives. If we measure Chinese society (in late imperial age, say) against metrics derived from Western post-industrial-age developments (lately, publication statistics in an "information-driven" age, etc.), they are bound to appear as having "missed out", at least initially, or so it would seem IMHO. Relative performances do change, but (and this may be more relevant with respect to possible limits of growth, etc.) so do the metrics that we consider.


At best, positive answers to the question you posed can only establish a correlation, not a causation. After all, a less developed country can't really properly utilize a lot of engines.

Say as a thought experiment you gave an illiterate 15th century European farmer a diesel engine, but no infrastructure to support it. He wouldn't even know how to use it. Even if he figures that out, where's he going to get the fuel for it? How is he going to get it fixed when it needs maintenance? This is the situation nearly all of China would have been in.

So while there may be (most likely is) a relation between a society's development and their lack of engines, I think a more productive line of inquiry would be why China didn't have that infrastructure to support lots of engines, while European societies did.


China just did not develop higher mathematics. Neither integral not differential calculus and even too little of algebra. Integral calculus is one of the prerequisites to creating efficient engines.

Also mechanic theory is needed for creating reliable and efficient mechanisms, and also impossible without higher mathematics.


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