The Return of Innovation to China – Part 1/2

The China History Forum asked, “Which dynasty was most technologically innovative?”

Of the few responses, less than 6% said the Qin and Han Dynasties. More than 70% answered the Sung/Song Dynasty and about 18% voted for the Ming Dynasty.

The Dynasties ruled by the Mongols (Yuan) and the Manchu (Qing) minorities received no votes. The Qing Dynasty (the Manchu) ruled China 1644 to 1912 and repressed the Han Chinese so that earning rank or recognition through merit, which was an element of Chinese civilization for more than two millennia, broke down possibly allowing the West, for the first time, to become more technologically advanced than China.

In fact, when the Sung Dynasty fell to the Mongol invasion led by Kublai Khan many of the innovations of the Sung renaissance were destroyed by the invaders.

Today, some critics of China often claim that the Chinese cannot innovate and that they are copycats stealing ideas and concepts from the West.

The most common reasons given are Confucianism, rote learning, and piety, which encourage obedience of authority.  However, if this were true, what explains the Chinese inventions of silk, paper, porcelain, gunpowder, the printing press, the compass, a cure for scurvy, modern ship building techniques, the multi-stage rocket, the assembly line, napalm, the stirrup, the crossbow and much more—all centuries before those innovations appeared in the West.

When challenged, the critic will often use this flawed reasoning as evidence: “How many Chinese have won the Nobel Prize?”

In fact, the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901 about the time of the Boxer Rebellion in China and the first Sino Japanese War—long after the innovative glory of the Sung Dynasty (960-1276 AD). The stability necessary for innovation to take place would not return to China until after Mao died in 1976.

Then thirty-four years later, in 2010, four Chinese won the Nobel Prize in Physics, and one Taiwan born Chinese was a Chemistry Prize winner.

Howard Steven Friedman, writing for the Huffington Post, reported, “”No one born in the mainland China has won the Chemistry or Physiology/Medicine until this year, and all four of the mainland China-born winners of the Physics prize (Charles K. Kao, Daniel C. Tsui, Chen Ning Yang and Tsung-Dao Lee) received their graduate training and did their prize-winning research outside of China (three in the US, one in the UK). The one Taiwan-born Chemistry Prize winner, Yuan Tseh Lee, did his graduate work in the US…”

However, these Chinese Noble Prize winners were all raised by Chinese parents and went to school in China or Taiwan before attending colleges in the West.

Friedman then asks and answers, “So when will we see a Nobel Prize winner in science who was trained in China and did their prize-winning research in China?

“Not for a long time,” he says.

Then Friedman explains why, and it has little to do with Confucianism, rote learning or piety. He says, “Although the Chinese government has been investing in its science technology as well as luring established scientists of Chinese descent back to the mainland, it will take years to build a strong infrastructure for cutting-edge research… Delays will also be due to the typically decades-long lag between when research occurs and when an award is granted. This lag, which allows for validation of the scientific merit and importance, means that great scientific discoveries that occur now will most likely not be awarded until 10, 20 or even 40 years in the future.”

Continued on May 12, 2012 in The Return of Innovation to China – Part 2


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of The Concubine Saga. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too. This is the love story Sir Robert Hart did not want the world to discover.

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