Why did China stop being the most innovative country in the world

May 15, 2018

The Man Who Loved China is the biography of Joseph Needham’s life. In this biography, Simon Winchester, the bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman brings to life the extraordinary story of Joseph Needham, the brilliant Cambridge scientist who unlocked the most closely held secrets of China, long the world’s most technologically advanced country.

Joseph Needham’s Science and Civilisation in China deals with the history of science and technology in China, and the series is on the Modern Library Board’s 100 Best Nonfiction books of the 20th century.

In 1954, Needham—along with an international team of collaborators—initiated the project to study the science, technology, and civilization of ancient China. This project produced a series of volumes published by Cambridge University Press. The project is still continuing under the guidance of the Publications Board of the Needham Research Institute (NRI).

If you visit Cambridge.org, you will read: “Dr. Joseph Needham’s account of the Chinese achievement in science and technology will stand as one of the great works of our time. It has been acclaimed by specialists in both East and West and also by readers with wider and more general interests. The text, based on research of a high critical quality, is supported by many hundreds of illustrations and is imbued with a warm appreciation of China. … He begins by examining the structure of the Chinese language; he reviews the geography of China and the long history of its people, and discusses the scientific contacts which have occurred throughout the centuries, between Europe and East Asia.”

Needham left us with a question that he never answered, and China experts are still debating that answer today, an answer to the curious fact that after centuries of scientific and technological creativity, that activity suddenly came to an end in 1500 AD. Needham wanted to know what happened, but he never answered his own question.

Needham’s research on China discovered that the ancient Chinese led the world and accomplished an average of 15 important innovations a century for a total of more than fifteen hundred. Then came the sixteenth century, when the Renaissances was fully underway in Europe, and the creative passions of China dried up.

I think the answer to Needham’s question will be revealed in the posts that cover the rest of China’s history after the end of the Song Dynasty in 1279 AD up to Mao’s death in 1976. The decline was long, brutal, and bloody.

When Mao died in 1976, China’s education system was all but gone and had to be rebuilt from scratch, and many of the country’s public school teachers were dead from suicide or execution. If you read The Man Who Loved China, you will also discover that during World War II, one goal of the Japanese was to destroy China’s educational system, and the Japanese armies did all they could to destroy China’s universities, burn China’s libraries, and execute China’s scholars.

What happened to China after the Song Dynasty and in World War II reminds me of what is happening today in the United States where ignorant, arrogant individuals like Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, Bill Gates, David and Charles Koch, the Wal-Mart Walton family and their autocratic, wealthy, old, white allies are slowly, systematically dismantling the community based, public education system of the United States.

Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of My Splendid Concubine, Crazy is Normal, Running with the Enemy, and The Redemption of Don Juan Casanova.

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