On Oct. 1st China’s Communist Party will celebrate 60 years in power with a gala parade, a show of military might, and a cast of 200,000. Among the Party’s proudest achievements is injecting capitalism back into China 30 years ago, and letting the ambition and drive of the Chinese people transform China’s economy into one of the world’s biggest.
The Party also wants to transform China’s economy into one of the world’s most creative – to reclaim a mantle of creativity and innovation that China held for more than a thousand years, before being overtaken by the West.
In this five-part series The World’s Asia Correspondent Mary Kay Magistad explores the roots of China’s creative past, and what’s being done now, with what success, to relight that spark.
Here’s is the first part:
This was China’s national observatory for 500 years. Astronomers studied the heavens, at the pleasure of the Emperor. Lu Dishen is a researcher here:
Lu: “Chinese paid a lot of attention to celestial phenomena. Because celestial phenomena occurring in the sky was believed to mean that something happened to the emperor or to the whole empire.”
Magistad: So the masses might see a solar eclipse as a sign that the emperor had lost the favor of heaven – and that might prompt them to try to overthrow the dynasty. Researcher Lu Dishen says that’s why the emperor didn’t allow just anyone to become an astronomer – only a trusted few:
Lu: “In China, in some dynasties, if you observed the sky by yourself, you would have been punished to killed.”
Magistad: But other scientists had plenty of room to explore new ways of doing things. And over the course of 1,500 years, they came up with some of the most important inventions the world had ever seen.
The Chinese invented paper, printing, gunpowder and the compass. They created silk, porcelain, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and the seismograph. In the 2nd century BC, Chinese were already deep-drilling for natural gas and, says researcher Lu Dishen, accurately charting the movement of the planets:
Lu: “Before the 15th century, Chinese astronomy was the most advanced in the world. But after that, after the Ming Dynasty to Qing Dynasty, we just followed the Western astronomy, because it was more advanced.”
Magistad: But why? Why was Western science able to overtake China’s substantial lead? The question has haunted China for generations.
The documentary, “River Elegy,” raised the question when it aired on China’s state-run television in 1988. “River Elegy” suggested that, since the 19th century, Chinese culture had become stultified, like the Yellow River silting up:
‘River Elegy’ film: “Is it our history of passive defeat over the past century that has conditioned us psychologically, or decades of poverty and backwardness? The spirit of a people is hurting. The cause of the pain is a civilization in decline.”
Magistad: Unlike Western civilization, the documentary said – and it argued that China needed to look to the West for new ideas, like science and democracy. The idea that only the West could save China was something Westerners had been saying about China for much of the 20th century.
A more sympathetic Westerner was British biochemist Joseph Needham. In the ‘30s, he raised the question that came to be known as the Needham Question: why had China lost its innovative edge? He devoted the rest of his life to documenting China’s great inventions, but never really answered the original question. Now, some China historians are asking, is that even the right question? Or did earlier Westerners frame it that way to reinforce a Western feeling of superiority, to justify forcing China to open to trade and modern influences?
Ken Pomeranz is the author of the book “The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy.” Pomeranz, who’s a professor of Chinese history at the University of California at Irvine, says Chinese innovation didn’t end with the Ming Dynasty – it just changed direction:
Pomeranz: “It is true that there aren’t what we might call Chinese mega-inventions on the same level of the compass, or gunpowder, during the Ming. But what ends up being a mega-invention is often not a question of how innovative it is at the time, but of how other people wind up using them.”
Magistad: For instance – he says – the early steam engine was a clunky energy-guzzling monster. It could have been dismissed as an interesting but ultimately useless idea. The only way it was worth using was if there was cheap energy nearby. The British figured that out – and used it at the head of coalmines, to pump out water and mine coal. With the coal, they could put steam engines on wheels, to form trains. The trains could take coal to factories, and power plants. One idea led to another, and the Industrial Revolution was born.
Meanwhile, China was dealing with a different set of issues. It had coal too, but it was in the landlocked north. That made it prohibitively expensive to transport to where it could have been used. So innovation went not into finding labor-saving devices that used lots of energy, but devices that saved it – like the wok:
Its thin, curved metal distributes heat quickly, so it allowed the chef to use less of that expensive fuel. There was also the fact that while Europe had lots of land and not so many people – China had lots of people, and little arable land. So, Pomeranz says Chinese innovation went into getting the most out of each acre:
Pomeranz: “So the Chinese are, for instance, quite ingenious, over the course of the 16th, 17th, 18th and into the 19th centuries, in finding ways of getting more crops out of an acre. They’re still doing well at raising yields, and their yields per acre are the highest in the world, basically. They’re not that that great in maximizing yields per labor hour, because that wasn’t a crucial problem for them.”
Magistad: So, China’s innovation tackled different questions from Europe’s, and came up with different answers. Ultimately, China did fall behind, but it wasn’t because it stopped innovating. What happened is that under the Ming Dynasty, the emperors became less interested in interacting with the outside world, and absorbing new ideas. Trade continued on the coasts, but china didn’t keep current on the scientific advances happening in other countries.
Meanwhile, Europe was going through the Renaissance and Enlightenment and settling of the New World. Zhang Kaixun, who heads China’s Inventions Association, says all this helped Europe pull ahead of China:
Zhang: “The Renaissance itself wasn’t about science and technology, it was about art, philosophy and religion, and it created a free atmosphere and open environment for people to think. A free environment is very important for innovation. “
Magistad: While Europe was going through the Renaissance and Enlightenment, China was embracing a kind of neo-Confucianism, with a strict hierarchy and code of behavior. It pulled the best minds into becoming mandarins and scholars of classic Confucian texts, rather than merchants and entrepreneurs. This didn’t stop innovation, but it didn’t exactly encourage it either.
There are other possible reasons scientific innovation and the industrial age took off in Europe, while China’s rate of innovation slowed. Europe’s many states fought so much they had to keep coming up with new weapons and tactics. The wars prompted many Europeans to live in the relative safety of cities – where new ideas spread quickly. These included financial innovations, says Arthur Kroeber, who edits the China Economic Quarterly:
Kroeber: “You had the rise of big diversified banking firms… You had the development of insurance which is crucial to enabling to scale up trade in the way that it was previously not possible because you could insure against loss. You had the development of corporations, later stock companies, which enable people to spread risk and become much more entrepreneurial.”
Magistad: By contrast, Kroeber says, China’s economy was made up of small family businesses. It lacked corporations that might have encouraged inventors and entrepreneurs to take risks:
Kroeber: “Because again it is a risk-spreading mechanism that enables you to take a relatively modest amount of capital and leverage it out and not risk so much personally. And it also implies there are large swathes of the economy where you can scale up business activity to any size you want, more or less, without incurring the intervention of the State. And that’s always a problem in China. Once it gets big enough, the State always wants to get involved. And it wants to control things.”
Magistad: There were other factors that held back Chinese innovation too, wars and political upheaval, throughout much of the 19th century and into the 20th. There was a search for new ideas after the last emperor was overthrown in 1912. But war overtook that too – first the Japanese invasion, then the Communists fight to take power.
When Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, many Chinese hoped this would be a new start for China in the modern world. What they soon found instead was that Mao wasn’t interested in hearing ideas that deviated from his own. He sent hundreds of thousands of intellectuals to prison camps or to their deaths for questioning him. And in the mid-‘60s, he launched the Cultural Revolution.
Mao encouraged teenage Red Guards like these to persecute so-called “counter-revolutionaries.” They included intellectuals, those with ties to the West, and anyone whose ideas clashed with Mao’s orthodoxy. It was not fertile ground for innovation. And yet, Jin Xiaofeng – who’s now an internet entrepreneur – remembers it as a time for her, as a pre-teen, of some unexpected freedom:
Jin: “My parents were sent to the countryside, and I have no school to go. But that actually allowed me to have a lot of space of my own, I could do something different, creative, and entertain myself, not going through the education system.”
Magistad: She says that experience helped her grow up to become a risk-taking entrepreneur. She worries that young Chinese in school today are under too much pressure, within too much structure, to have the freedom to think creatively. And yet, thinking creatively is what the government wants them to do.
As it prepares to celebrate 60 years in power the Communist Party is pushing to make China a more innovative nation. The Party says that’s crucial for China’s continued economic growth. There’s also something more at stake – China’s sense of itself, and its place in the world. There’s a hunger to reclaim the respect China once enjoyed, as one of the most powerful and innovative places on earth. The question is how to get there.
For The World, I’m Mary Kay Magistad in Beijing.