The Power Of Contingency: Why China Didn’t Rule The World

Pomeranz, Kenneth – The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (2001)
Category: economy, history, world systems; Rating: 5*/5
Summary: Brad DeLong’s reviewThe Bactra Review; Are Coal and Colonies Really Crucial?

great-divergence-pomeranzIt’s a rare book that not only vastly informs you on a particular issue, but in so doing overturns many prior conceptions you had on the general subjects. Now, Pomeranz is not a good writer. The text is slow and turgid, and readable only by dint of my interest in the subject. Many potential counter-arguments go unanswered (which is not to say that they sink the overall theory, as I will try to prove in this review). All that said, I have little choice but to give it a 5*/5, as this a truly counter-intuitive and deeply contextualizing work that overturns many of the triumphalist post hoc narratives of Western chauvinism.

This book attempts to answer the big question of world economic history: Why Europe? It does this by systematically comparing Europe with other leading world regions in the pre-industrial age such as Qing China, Tokugawa Japan, and India. The first big finding is that – contrary to the conventional wisdom – there were far more similarities than differences, at least between Britain and the most advanced Chinese region, the Yangtze Delta.

Essential Similarities Between Old World Cores

It is sometimes argued that special European demographic patterns, such as marrying late and a celibate clergy, had the effect of lowering its fertility and mitigating the Malthusian impoverishment held to be prevalent elsewhere. Another, often complementary, view is that European consumption markets were already far more developed than in China, which allowed it to hit the ground running (so to speak) once the preconditions for industrial revolution were fulfilled. However, China also saw fertility postponement, and there is ample evidence that at least until the mid-19th century the average quality of life in China as measured by life expectancy, median incomes, availability of consumer goods, etc. was at least as good as in Europe, probably higher, and as good as Britain in its most advanced region, the Yangtze Delta.

Although Europe was technologically ahead in some spheres – most visibly, guns, clock making, optics – China had a clear lead in irrigation, soil preservation and land management, and medicine (yields per acre in Europe only approached Chinese levels by the late 19th century). This is of no small consequence in pre-industrial societies hewing to the laws of Malthus. As in China, per capita food and fuel availability declined in Europe up until the mid-19th century century; only in Britain was this in significant part mitigated from 1800 by the windfall of “coal and colonies” (much more on this later).

Finally, there’s the argument that European capitalist institutions and markets were better developed and thus kick-started its growth. But again, the evidence Pomeranz marshals convinces that, if anything, China was substantially more “capitalist” (in the laissez-faire sense) than Europe. There were far fewer monopolies, and no internal trade barriers – contrast this, for example, with ancient regime France – and as a consequence, the volume of trade flows (in grains, sugar, timber, etc) were far higher within China than in continental Europe. The civil service was professional and meritocratic, whereas in Europe this only came to be in the 19th century. Markets for labor and products were freer in China; guilds had much less political influence than in Europe. Bound labor and feudal obligations remained prevalent far longer in Europe (and India) than in China, where it had long ago become marginal; for instance, the settlement of Taiwan for the cultivation of sugar – China’s equivalent of the Caribbean islands – was done by free labor. Though credit was cheaper in Europe – or, at least, in Holland and Britain – but to cut a long story short, there is (1) no evidence that this made crucial industrial activities unprofitable or impeded further pro-industrial mechanization, and (2) the credit system was more developed in India relative to China and Japan, although it was far more backward in general.

One major factor that Pomeranz glosses over is the impact of the Scientific Revolution. Though Chinese scientific achievements are under-appreciated – for instance, it matched Western mathematical achievements up to and including those of 16th century Italy – it is undeniable that Europe took a commanding lead from about the mid-16th century. There was to be no Chinese Kepler or Newton. But impressive as it was, you do not need calculus or laws of planetary motion to produce coal and iron (“as late as 1827 and 1842, two separate British observers claimed that Indian bar iron was as good or betterthan English iron”), and you certainly don’t need them to more efficiently produce textiles. As first textiles, and then coal and iron, constituted the first stages of the Industrial Revolution – up to the 1860′s or so – the European scientific base was almost entirely incidental to the initial industrial takeoff. Now obviously this scientific base did become vastly more important by the late 19th century, which saw the flowering of the electric, chemical, and international combustion engine industries; and those countries with particularly powerful research establishments, such as the US and Germany, did very well, catching up to Britain. However, by then China was already hugely behind.

Addendum 7/31: I almost forgot to mention this. This is probably obvious, but Pomeranz says nary a word about the contribution of cultural differences to the Great Divergence (in contrast to people like Landes who make it a centerpiece of their analysis, waxing poetic on the influence of the Renaissance, the Reformation, distinctive Western values of separation of church and state, etc). And rightly so. Culture is an intangible, and has very little explanatory power; furthermore, such explanations are frequently contradictory in time and place (for instance, whereas “Confucian values” may be cited as holding Chinese society back, they are now frequently invoked to explain the meteoric rise of the Asian tigers; you can’t have it both ways, folks).

The European “Miracle”: Coal and Colonies

Why then did Europe, and more specifically Britain, industrialize while China fell into an ecological impasse in which food production barely kept up with population growth? Pomeranz argues (convincingly, IMO) that the crux of the matter was a fortunate conjunctures and contingencies that overwhelmingly favored Europe.

First, colonies. Many recent scholars have dismissed their contribution; according to one article, overseas coercion could not have been responsible for more than 7% of gross investment in late 18th century Britain (and far less in Europe). But this neglects the vital role of the New World colonies – with their near endless land and natural resources - at relieving ecological bottlenecks in Europe, and in particular Britain. These included sugar (which acted as an additional source of calories as well as a hunger suppressant) and cotton (for clothing, and indirectly relieving pressure on pastures and timber for heating), and later in the 19th century, massive grain exports. All this “ghost acreage” allowed the British isles to support a far larger population than its existing carrying capacity could have, a highly urbanized one and relatively comfortable too (hence no Malthusian stress as in late Qing China, with its debilitating effects on political and social cohesion).

(Furthermore, even the aforementioned 7% figure could have been significant in a pre-industrial world. Due to high rates of capital depreciation, the net accumulation in capital stock then was only a small fraction of the overall savings rate. For instance, according to one calculation, that hypothetical 7% in “super-profits” – an increment to gross savings not purchased at the expense of consumption – could have significantly increased an otherwise minimal rate of net capital accumulation.)

And these goods – cotton, sugar, etc. – could be imported at very favorable terms of trade, because of another set of favorable conjunctures. The decimation of Native Americans due to European epidemiological superiority cleared the way for settlers, who supplied the Caribbean colonies with food and Britain with timber (thus relieving its Malthusian stress). Furthermore, the slave labor on the Caribbean islands – apart from the implicit coercion (and “super-profits” it enabled) – prevented them from developing their own proto-industrial sectors that could undercut British exports.

This is in contrast to what happened naturally in China, largely by dint of its free labor markets (as opposed to New World slavery or East European serfdom). The inner provinces began to expand their handicrafts and textiles industries, thus undercutting the (more advanced) proto-industrialization of the Yangtze Delta. This was a form of “import substitution,” and economically natural in those times because of far higher transport costs than is the case today. This was accompanied by a growing population in the inner regions. Unable to increase its industrial exports, and facing declining imports of rice, timber, etc., the most advanced Chinese regions, the Yangtze Delta and Lingnan, had to increase the labor intensity of their agriculture so as to keep food production abreast of their own population.

Obviously, the conditions did not exist for a Caribbean turn towards import substitution. The slaves themselves had no choice, and neither did the owners; they needed to produce commodities for export in order to pay for replacing slaves. And this all provided a growing (as opposed to declining) demand stimulus for British industry.

One additional New World advantage covered in some length by Pomeranz is the windfall of New World silver – which was, in large part, a free gift to Europe on account of the slave labor and monopolies used in its extraction. This allowed it to easily balance the books with trade in China for silk, porcelain, etc., which in turn could be used to pay for African slaves and New World resources. And Chinese demand for silver was huge, since it was remonetizing its economy to run on silver during the early modern period. Indirectly, it contributed to the formation of the Atlantic economy.

The second great British advantage was coal – that is, as an alternative to wood, located close to its main industrial centers (China too had coal, but it was far away from its main industrial centers, and transport costs were prohibitive). Coal relieved pressure on woodlands, which were in rapid decline, and – due to its virtually limitless nature – unbound the production possibilities of iron. Steam power was crucial to this expansion, not only by powering other processes but by permitting a huge expansion of coal-mining itself. “The Chinese had long understood the basic scientific principle involved – the existence of atmospheric pressure – and had long since mastered (as part of their “box bellows”) a double-acting piston/cylinder system much like Watt’s, as well as a system for transforming rotary motion to linear motion that was as good as any known anywhere before the twentieth century. ll that remained was to use the piston to turn the wheel rather than vice versa.” So the relevant technical skills were not unique to Europe. In fact, northern China had a huge coke and iron complex as early as the 11th century under the Song dynasty, though it was brought low by the multiple perturbations of the 12th-15th centuries (Jurchen and Mongol invasions, etc). The rest is worth quoting in extenso:

However, a number of factors militated against widespread Chinese (re)adoption of coal as a major fuel source. First, the reorientation of the center of Chinese development to the east and south meant by the Qing dynasty meant that its industrial cores were now located far from the big coal deposits in the north-west; the advantages of linking these regions by transport are only evident ex ante. Second, the best artisans were concentrated in the (low coal) Yangtze Delta or along the south-east coast, and serving a huge public demand for clocks and other mechanical toys. Third, “even if mine operators had seen how to improve their mining techniques, they had no reason to think that extracting more coal would allow them to capture a vastly expanded market.” Finally, and most importantly, the technical nature of extracting Chinese coal was profoundly different from that of extracting British coal; in fact, it made the deep extraction that enabled Britain to boost its output all but impossible.

English mines tended to fill with water, so a strong pump was needed to remove that water. Chinese coal mines had much less of a water problem; instead they were so arid that spontaneous combustion was a constant threat. It was this problem – one that required ventilation rather than powerful pumps – that preoccupied the compiler of the most important Chinese technical manual of the period… Even if still better ventilation had ameliorated this problem—or if people wanted coal badly enough to pay for this high level of danger – ventilation techniques would not have also helped solve the problem of transporting coal (and things in general) as the steam engines that pumped out Britain’s mines did. Thus, while overall skill, resource, and economic conditions in “China,” taken as an abstract whole, may not have been much less conducive to a coal/steam revolution than those in “Europe” as a whole, the distribution of those endowments made the chances of such a revolution much dimmer.

In contrast, some of Europe’s largest coal deposits were located in a much more promising area: in Britain. This placed them near excellent water transport, Europe’s most commercially dynamic economy, lots of skilled craftspeople in other areas, and – to give the problems of getting and using coal some additional urgency – a society that had faced a major shortage of firewood by 1600 if not before. And although timber and timber-based products were imported by sea, this was far more expensive than receiving logs floated down a river, as the Yangzi Delta did; the incentives to use (and learn more about) comparatively accessible coal were correspondingly greater.

Much of the knowledge about how to extract and use coal had been accumulated by craftsmen and was not written down even in the nineteenth century… Harris shows that French attempts to copy various coal-using processes foundered, even when they reproduced the equipment, because the production of, say, a heat-resistant crucible required very detailed knowledge and split-second timing acquired through experience – and the financial losses from making a mistake could be very large… Only when whole teams of English workers were brought over (mostly after 1830) was the necessary knowledge effectively transferred.

Thus we see that technological expertise was essential to Europe’s coalbreakthrough, but the development of that expertise depended on long experience (and many failures along the way) with abundant, cheap supplies. This experience was possible because artisan skill, consumer demand, and coal itselfwere all concentrated near each other. Without such geographic good luck, one could easily develop lots of expertise in an area with a limited future (e.g.,in using and improving wood furnaces) and not proceed along the track that eventually led to tapping vast new supplies of energy.

Furthermore, the adoption of the steam engine – whose synthesis with coal was what really generated the Industrial Revolution – was also highly contingent. It was the result of 200 years of use on British coal fields, which was both economical (free coal due to zero transport costs) and proximate to mechanics-minded artisans which could offer improvements. Nonetheless, it took until 1830 for the costs of energy per unit of power for steam-run textile machinery to decline precipitously; until then, water remained competitive with steam engines!

Take away some of the incremental advantage conferred by skill transfers from nearby artisans in other fields, the learning by doing made possible by the application to nearby coal fields, and the low cost of coal itself, and – as incredible as it seems to us today – the steam engine could have seemed not worth promoting.

So, in conclusion, Britain enjoyed two major advantages that the Yangtze Delta, the Lingnan region, and Japan did not: (1) a colonial system that allowed it to massively increase its effective carrying capacity while simultaneously stimulating its industrial production, and (2) conveniently located coal reserves in damp places.

Apart from Britain, Europe as a whole was nowhere close to an industrial takeoff at the dawn of the 19th century; and though the relative inefficiency of its land usage – and the gains from ameliorating that – allowed it to avoid a crisis for a few decades after 1800 (what Pomeranz calls the ecological “advantages of backwardness”), it was nonetheless approaching an an ecological bottleneck as in China (the 1840′s in particular are known as a time of dearth). This was at a time when the Industrial Revolution had scarcely began on the mainland, and if it had continued it would have required the diversion of more and more labor to working the land intensively, instead of industry. Could industrialization then have been sustained without coal, New World surpluses, and the already existing industrialization of Great Britain?

The general impression one gets is that not only was the “European miracle” in fact just a matter of fortunate conjunctures and contingencies, but that there was nothing especially preordained about the Industrial Revolution. No colonial surpluses; no easily-reachable coal or mechanical culture; perhaps, even no slavery (to enhance the efficiency with which colonial surpluses were extracted) – no industrial revolution. At least, not a few more centuries.

Additional Thoughts for Consideration

(1) Needless to say, I now largely reject my previous theory Walled Off By Complexity: Did China Stagnate Because Of Its Writing System? I don’t think the hieroglyphics system did China any good, but they certainly can’t explain The Great Divergence.

(2) One important factor that I didn’t see Pomeranz mention – the Atlantic is much narrower than the Pacific! China was building ships as advanced as that of the European Golden Age of Navigation as early as the 15th century, and in huge numbers far exceeding the capacity of any single European state. Navigation itself wasn’t a problem either (note that it was China that invented the compass, topographic maps, etc). But it didn’t practice overseas slave-trading, and those Chinese that settled new lands – be they in Taiwan, or the inner provinces – tended to develop their own proto-industrial economies, which in the presence of conditions of free trade and free markets for labor and products eventually undermined the volume of trade.

(3) The “rise of the West” was in large part built on systems – mercantilism, military-fiscal competition, etc. – that universal Western ideology now condemns. Ironically, the BRIC’s (including most prominently China) are the ones using mercantile strategies to catch up to the West.

(4) What’s even more curious is that it wasn’t only Britain, and then the rest of Western Europe that overtook China; so did Russia. Now Russia was undoubtedly far, far behind both China and the West practically since its inception until (relative to China) about the late 19th century. It had serfdom, very small urban class, a very de-commercialized economy, with luxury consumption being indulged in by a tiny elite, etc. Nonetheless, despite this backwardness – an inevitable one, due to ecological reasons I have written a lot on this blog about – the state did nonetheless successfully leverage what meager surpluses it had to maintain a rough military parity with the West and play the role of a Great Power. So, yet more evidence that strict adherence to neoclassical economic development isn’t all that it’s hyped up to be.

(5) An interesting counter-factual to consider – what if there had been no easily accessible coal in Britain or the Rhineland, and if Columbus had found no New World and instead sunk somewhere in the middle of a globe-spanning World Ocean? Could there have been an industrial revolution? Is industrial revolution contingent on “coal and colonies”?

Or would Europe instead have become something like Qing China in the 19th century, increasingly politically debilitated, and economically stagnant – any improvements in land management and increasing labor intensity swallowed up by an inexorably growing population? Could it, indeed, have collapsed, perhaps after it grew critically weak and was invaded by the Russian Army much like China was by the Jurchens, the Mongols, the Manchus, etc., and pillaged by British pirates much like Japanese pirates preyed on a weak China in the 17th century Ming twilight? Indeed, could it eventually have collapsed into yet another Dark Age as followed the Roman Empire, in which much of the vaunted knowledge of the Scientific Revolution would be lost to memory, with the 18th century to early 19th century coming to be seen as a bygone “Golden Age”?

PS. H/t to Doug M. for bringing this book to my attention in the first place.

Comments

  1. 1) I’m convinced the New World played a huge role and am always stunned when Diamond or Pomeranz, apparently, failed to notice the size the Pacific and instead explain China’s failure to rise by internal factors.

    2) The penchant of Europeans for trade really needs to be explained. Even before the industrial revolutions you had great expeditions and commercial colonies run by the English, French, Portuguese and Dutch… Even small nations had a big presence overseas. You did not see Japanese or Indians setting up shop in Western Europe. I’m convinced the infrastructure and shipping needed for this and New World triangular trade was critical to Britain’s later industrial success.

    • Re-1) That’s not a huge criticism, just a relatively minor thing that Pomeranz left out that could have further supported his view that the rise of Europe was due to a series of fortunate conjunctures.

      So let’s say that the Pacific was narrower, and Chinese settlers occupied what is now California. Let us also assume that they’d have managed to extract primary resources from it and send it to the advanced industrial core, i.e. the Yangtze Delta.

      That still doesn’t solve the interrelated coal and steam engine problem, however. The British steam engine that formed the basis for the industrial takeoff was the result of 200 years of experimentation, observation, and learning-by-doing applied to coal fields; which happened to be situated close to big concentrations of skilled artisans, geographically close to the most advanced proto-industry on the European continent and – crucially – in damp conditions that required water to be constantly pumped out.

      Re-2) You’re right on this. However, did the Asians need anything from Western Europe? While there was plenty of demand for silks, porcelain, etc., the only major Western export eastwards was gold and silver. And much of that came from South America.

      There were a lot of Chinese trading communities scattered all across Asia, but the form Chinese trade took was far different from European. The latter relied on armed, huge capitalized trading companies; whereas in China, individual merchants bought compartments for their goods on the same junk and carried out their trades separately once they reached their destination.

      This special European corporate structure, however, was not always or even mostly commercially successful against Chinese competition in Asia. Where this structure really began to shine was when bigger industrial projects involving a lot of capital and returns spread over many years in the future (e.g. railways) got going. But that’s already well into the Industrial Revolution.

      Many of the initial steps, e.g. coal mining / steam engines, better textile production, etc., weren’t funded by such corporations, but by personal networks (i.e. what would be guanxi in China).

  2. yalensis says:

    On narrowness of Atlantic ocean, I think you are really onto something here. Being someone who easily gets seasick I have always been astonished how easy it was to cross Atlantic even before the time of Columbus, and certainly after his time. As early as 16th century there was a flourishing cod fishing industry in which “commuter” European ships sailed to Newfoundland for cod, salted the cod on board the ship, and then returned with the catch to their home countries. In many cases, for the individual sailor this was no worse than the modern business trip; he was only away from home for a couple of weeks, and then returned to his family with some extra cash:

    In the early sixteenth century, fishermen from England, France, Spain and Portugal discovered the best places to fish for cod in the waters off Newfoundland, and how best to preserve the fish for the journey home.[4]
    The French, Spanish and Portuguese fishermen tended to fish on the Grand Banks and other banks out to sea, where fish were always available. They salted their fish on board ship and it was not dried until brought to Europe…

    Note also that that dried and salted cod, although not delicious, was cheap, highly nutritious and provided calories for growing European population.
    This speaks to Craig Willy’s question “Why did Europeans trade so much?” I believe the answer is: “Because they could.” Why not, once you discover some great and useful things out there in the world, and find that they are relatively easy to get to, all you need is a rickety boat?
    (On the issue of sugar, it does not really provide many useful calories, but I think Europeans became hooked on this substance in its later metamorphosic state of RUM.)

    • Actually, the Basque fisheries in the Grand Banks dated to the 15th century. (Yes, that.) Well into the New France period, a Basque-Icelandic pidgin remained spoken by some in northeasternmost North America.

      • yalensis says:

        In other words, Columbus did not “discover” the New World? Hah! I knew it!

        • From what I know the Basques didn’t recognize the Newfoundland area as northeasternmost North America, rather classifying it as just another marginal North Atlantic island–the most distant, regulatrly visited, to be sure. (Knowledge of late Viking Greenland’s trade is sparse, to say the least.) If it had been more luxurious, maybe. As things stand, I”ve come across suggestions that sailors from areas involved in the North Atlantic fisheries trade in the very very early modern era–Basques, Bretons, English from ports like Bristol–did know about Newfoundland but didn’t classify it as a “new found land”, so to be.

  3. Excellent post and an eye opener. Even though Malthus is the whipping boy of the laissez-faire drones, this book shows convincing examples of resource constraints in action and defining history. To this day fossil fuels are ridiculously cheap and lubricate the global economy. After 2020 things are not going to be so rosy for the world due to peak oil. By 2050 agricultural constraints will be severe due to climate change and aquifer depletion. So we are head for a decline and there is no special region with superior cultural features that will somehow proceed towards utopia.

  4. Sorry for the length of my comment. I had some free time. You don’t have to read it if you don’t want to, I haven’t killed any trees with this, it’s just dots on the screen, etc.

    “…this a truly counter-intuitive and deeply contextualizing work that overturns many of the triumphalist post hoc narratives of Western chauvinism.”

    But for the average modern reader the above wouldn’t be counterintuitive at all. It would be old hat, boring same-old, etc. The average modern reader would have never come across any Western triumphalism in his life, certainly not on a page. This reminds me of watching anti-czarist movies and cartoons as a kid, stuff set to Mayakovski’s poetry, for example. At that time I had never seen any defense of czarism from anyone. What were those movies being angry about? It felt like the most boring stuff on earth. The back and forth of conflict is at least interesting. One side still being angry at the other long after that other side has died, when there is no conflict anymore – that’s boring. I never heard anyone at school say “did you see that malchish kibalchish cartoon? THAT was cool”. That’s because it wasn’t. Conformism is boring. In the modern West, ranting against the ghost of Western triumphalism is the most conformist position imaginable.

    “It does this by systematically comparing Europe with other leading world regions in the pre-industrial age…”

    I’ve only just started reading your review, but why am I so sure that biology, the Darwinian approach, must have formed exactly 0% of Mr. Pomeranz’s “systematic” comparison? It’s because of the conformism implied in the “triamphalist” “chauvinism” quote above. He’s going to “systematically” compare every aspect of a set of entities, except for one. And, wouldn’t you know it, what a shocker, who could have possibly guessed it, the particular aspect he’s not going to touch is the one that’s currently taboo. It wasn’t taboo 100 or even 70 years ago, it’s probably not going to be taboo a couple of decades from now, but it just so happened that at the exact time and place when this guy expected to get paid for his “systematic” comparison, it was taboo, so he left it out of his “system”. That was NOT counterintuitive. That sort of thing one always sees coming.

    “Although Europe was technologically ahead in some spheres – most visibly, guns, clock making, optics…”

    He missed realistic portrayal of the human form and of human emotion in art. Why is that important? Not just because it can be visually stirring. A focus on the individual is a sign of deeper things, as is its lack. Is that a picture of an idealized ruler or of Pericles, of an idealized philosopher or of Aristotle? In the Western case we have portraits of actual individuals. As far as I know, in all other pre-modern cultures we only have idealized forms. If I was writing a book “systematically” comparing Western Civ. with others, I’d mention this seemingly very important difference. Are people important as unique individuals or as faceless actors performing roles typical for their stations in life? I would bet $100 that Mr. Pomeranz didn’t mention this obvious and obviously important difference in different cultures’ outlook on the world.

    When Charles Murray compiled his lists of eminent figures in the arts and sciences, he was unable to produce a list of Chinese or Indian or Japanese composers:

    “In music, the lack of a tradition of named composers in non-Western civilizations means that the Western total of 522 significant figures has no real competition at all.”

    Wow. Talk about de-emphasizing the individual. The Western musical canon of signed, playable-from-a-score music goes back about 1000 years.

    I could list other areas here. Linear perspective, for example. I think we owe that to early 15th century Florence and to no other place.

    “China had a clear lead in irrigation…”

    Does irrigation even make sense anywhere in Europe? Most of the continent seems pretty wet as it is.

    “…and medicine”

    Really? I would guess that before… ahh, let’s say the 17th century, the score would have been pretty much 0-0 on that. I’m not a doctor, but does Chinese medicine do any good to anyone even today?

    “China was substantially more “capitalist”…”

    Then why did all the big brains in it always wanted to become officials, not businessmen? Florence, Venice, Genoa, the Hanseatic cities, Novgorod, were run by the bourgeoisie during the middle ages. Those entire states were run for and by businessmen for centuries. I’m not saying that’s actually a desired outcome, but neither am I aware of any pre-modern Chinese attempts to take capitalism that far.

    “…guilds had much less political influence than in Europe.”

    Yeah, why should those uppity blacksmiths have any say? More generally: is democracy a bug or a feature of European life? Is the centrally-planned, vertically streamlined East Asian way of ordering society more or less efficient, more or less humane long-term? More obvious questions that an author shackled by conformity and incuriousness would never ask. I’m not definitely saying that Mr. Pomeranz is such an author – I haven’t read this book – but that’s what your review implies to me.

    “First, colonies.”

    Why didn’t China ever grab any colonies that weren’t next door to it already? One thing’s for sure: it wasn’t because of humanitarianism. Top contenders for an explanation: centralization, lack of curiosity.

    “…the windfall of New World silver – which was, in large part, a free gift to Europe…”

    OMG. Somebody had to come and get it. Imagine sailing into the unknown, beyond the edge of the world. Months with no land in sight, no known precedent before you, just an idea. Even small bands of illiterate, tribal Polynesians have displayed more initiative on that front than the largest, longest-lived empire on Earth. He treats the Chinese failure to grab the bounties of the New World as a matter of luck, even though it can be easily interpreted as a consequence of a conformist personality, of a lack of imagination. Isn’t the latter kind of relevant to his supposed subject of technological innovation? What’s beyond the horizon? Apparently there were more people interested in that question in tiny Portugal than in all of China.

    “…ventilation techniques would not have also helped solve the problem of transporting coal (and things in general) as the steam engines that pumped out Britain’s mines did.”

    Why? Ventilation would have required power, pumping water required power. Does it matter to a steam engine where its power is being used?

    “In contrast, some of Europe’s largest coal deposits were located in a much more promising area: in Britain. This placed them near excellent water transport…”

    But most of China had excellent water transport. It developed all those canals for irrigation.

    “Without such geographic good luck…”

    No genetic good luck, huh? OK, why did this particular favorable outcome (steam engines in 18th century Britain) occur in the same small corner of the world as the earlier scientific revolution, even earlier realistic art concerned with the individual, the earlier Age of Discovery? I’m trying to figure out PC logic. Was there one (obviously non-genetic, this is the PC version) lucky strike that happened before the ancient Greeks came on the scene that caused all of these later favorable outcomes or did luck just strike Europe again and again, breaking all laws of probability? And if there was one ancient, pre-Greek non-genetic lucky strike, why weren’t its effects lost during the period of cultural amnesia known as the Dark Ages? Jared Diamond made an attempt here. It was silly, but at least he tried. I don’t get a sense from this review that Pomeranz has tried that. The 18th century is way too late to introduce the necessary lucky strike.

    “…the Atlantic is much narrower than the Pacific! ”

    This reminds me – the Pacific was first crossed by a crew that came from a country (Portugal) located nowhere near the Pacific. The modern Chinese term for the Pacific Ocean is 太平洋 (Peace Ocean). They didn’t even have a name for their own damn ocean! Magellan had to come from the other side of the world to name it for them! How is this not as striking as Madagascar being first colonized by Indonesians, not Africans? To start giving names to oceans you first have to realize that more than one of them exist, and to do that you need initiative and curiosity, among other things. Of course, the drive to climb the Everest (their own damn mountain), together with the Everest’s name, came from Brits too.

    “The “rise of the West” was in large part built on systems – mercantilism, military-fiscal competition, etc. – that universal Western ideology now condemns.”

    This is true. And so the West isn’t rising anymore. While Putin was resisting some parts of the “universal Western ideology”, Russia’s standing in the world was rising. If he somehow holds on to power now, then may be it will rise some more. I’m sure this will sound simplistic to some, but I do believe that.

    (4) On Russia.

    I think it’s likely that the mean IQs reported over the last 100 years have been stable for a very long time, perhaps since the Neolithic. This means that for most of its history Russia had good brains coupled with a very low population density. I think the country’s population was something like 7 million under Ivan IV. In comparison, tiny Tuscany had 2 million at the same time. Good brains + low population density = not a lot of intellectual excitement. Culture comes from cities, cities come from agricultural surpluses, and in the past those surpluses were only achievable in warm climates. The unusual combination of good brains with warm climates has been intellectually explosive in the pre-modern world. Tiny Greece had 4 million people 2,500 years ago. Renaissance Tuscany was another example. Egypt had …ahhh not as good brains as Greece, but an insanely high population density, and that wasn’t intellectually explosive at all. 95% of the modern sciences bear Greek names in most modern languages, not ancient Egyptian ones, and that’s for a very good reason. So pop. density by itself wasn’t enough.

    The cold, endless forests occasionally broken up by towns and villages that was pre-modern Russia had to have technology, science and European art brought to it from the outside, from warmer, more densely-peopled places, but then the locals quickly picked up on all of it and started making contributions. Lomonosov was already doing new stuff in the 18th century. That’s not what happened in the Ottoman Empire, for example. Technology was brought in from the West, but it wasn’t fully picked up, and the contributions are meager even today. So brains matter.

    It’s hard to assign either the credit or the blame for the specifics of the history of the Russian relationship with high culture to political arrangements because Finland, which didn’t share a government with Russia for most of its history, had a very similar history with high culture. Nearly-empty forests for many centuries on end, then the bringing in of high culture from the outside, then quick adoption and major contributions (on the per-capita level, of course).

    “and if Columbus had found no New World and instead sunk somewhere in the middle of a globe-spanning World Ocean?”

    Well, Vasco Da Gama found India independently of Columbus. If there was no America, some of the energies poured into it by Europeans would have had to go into India, SE Asia, China, Australia. African labor could have been transported to the empty, scorching-hot parts of Australia. Or maybe it would have been East Indian or SE Asian labor. Or maybe all of those tropical crops would have reached Europe from India. The Age of Discovery started several generations before Columbus. The Portuguese started exploring Africa in the first half of the 15trh century. Tropical crops were always going to be valuable. If America didn’t exist, it would have been created somewhere else. And if it did exist, but Columbus sank, then some other subject of the Spanish or Portuguese crowns would have gotten to it in that decade. That wasn’t a one-off caprice, more like a culmination of a gold rush.

    • No worries, Glossy – your comments are appreciated as always. I can’t hope to reply to all of this, so I’ll limit myself to just a few major points.

      The average modern reader would have never come across any Western triumphalism in his life, certainly not on a page… In the modern West, ranting against the ghost of Western triumphalism is the most conformist position imaginable.

      Dude, no, no, NO! If you want Western triumphalism, there’s no shortage of it. David Landes, for a start, is probably the most prominent (which is not to say incisive) historian on global comparative historical development.

      The “ranting” that you speak of exists largely in Marxist / World-Systems derived theories of global economic history; they experienced some popularity in the 70′s and 80′s, but they are now largely discredited.

      Mostly, Ken Pomeranz comes across as middle of the road.

      When Charles Murray compiled his lists of eminent figures in the arts and sciences, he was unable to produce a list of Chinese or Indian or Japanese composers

      And how many prominent Western wéiqí masters are there? Western icon makers? Western calligraphers or guó huà painters? Even Western anime artists? The European musical and artistic tradition was a great cultural accomplishment, probably the most globally successful to date, but how is it essentially superior to non-European traditions?

      Does irrigation even make sense anywhere in Europe? Most of the continent seems pretty wet as it is.

      Not in the summer Mediterranean… but its not just irrigation, but agricultural science in general. European crop yields wouldn’t catch up to Chinese levels until the late 19th century.

      Really? I would guess that before… ahh, let’s say the 17th century, the score would have been pretty much 0-0 on that. I’m not a doctor, but does Chinese medicine do any good to anyone even today?

      Life expectancy seems to have been higher than in most of Europe, and certainly Chinese cities were far larger than their European equivalents (which indicates better sanitation and public health). I don’t know about medicine; to be fair, even the modern variety is frequently superfluous and ineffective.

      Yeah, why should those uppity blacksmiths have any say? More generally: is democracy a bug or a feature of European life? Is the centrally-planned, vertically streamlined East Asian way of ordering society more or less efficient, more or less humane long-term?

      Wait… you’ve got it heads over tails. The Chinese allowed guilds, but they did NOT (unlike in Europe) give guilds the right to fine and intimidate non-member artisans out of business. This is more freedom, less corruption / privilege.

      Why didn’t China ever grab any colonies that weren’t next door to it already?

      There were Chinese communities and trading networks all across South East Asia. The Chinese state was involved with them to a far lesser degree than European nations.

      Why? I assume because the cost-benefit calculations didn’t work out. Far too many small timers on the south-east coast were involved, so no opportunities for creating easily-taxed monopolies like the European armed trading companies.

      I’d also add that China, by dint of its location, was far better supplied with sugar, spices, etc., than Europe, to the extent that they weren’t truly considered luxuries. Hence, yet another reason why there did not exist any profit motive for the state or huge companies to get involved in colonial adventures.

      And speaking of which, WHY did the Europeans finance their adventurers to go sail the seas? To find India. Indian spices, dyes, Chinese silks, etc., that had become blocked off by Ottoman Turkey. The Chinese had all these things at their doorstep!

      Why? Ventilation would have required power, pumping water required power. Does it matter to a steam engine where its power is being used?… But most of China had excellent water transport. It developed all those canals for irrigation.

      To do this effectively, you really need electrically driven fans. Too much of a leap. And yes, China had excellent water transport, but by the time of the Qing all the coal within reach of the Yangtze Delta was already largely depleted (transport was a huge limiting factor; in Britain, for instance, coal not within 10km of a waterway was uneconomical during the 18th century). Look at a map; most of China’s coal reserves are far to the west and north. It was just far easier (and more cost effective!) to float logs down the Yangtze.

      OK, why did this particular favorable outcome (steam engines in 18th century Britain) occur in the same small corner of the world as the earlier scientific revolution, even earlier realistic art concerned with the individual, the earlier Age of Discovery? I’m trying to figure out PC logic.

      The realistic art originated in northern Italy, the Age of Discovery (which had its brief analog with Zheng He’s voyages) in the Iberia peninsula. Holland was for many centuries the most advanced commercial center of Europe. But the industrial revolution started in northwest England. These were all very different regions.

      The modern Chinese term for the Pacific Ocean is 太平洋 (Peace Ocean). They didn’t even have a name for their own damn ocean!

      Are you sure? I would imagine it was just, conceptually, part of 东海 (East Sea).

      Not going to wade into that IQ mess. Far too many things confused. For a start, the average IQ of US children in 1930 was roughly equal to India’s today.

      • yalensis says:

        Quoting anatoly:
        The “ranting” that you speak of exists largely in Marxist / World-Systems derived theories of global economic history; they experienced some popularity in the 70′s and 80′s, but they are now largely discredited.
        I am not familiar with that particular political strand? My family derives from Marxist/Communist stock, but in this particular tradition that I stem from, we did not “rant” against European history. On the contrary, our Marxism was traced back to traditions of Greece, Rome, all of European history, Voltaire, French Revolution, French Commune, German socialism, plus of course huge influence of Jewish intellectual diaspora on European Enlightenment.
        Then, on Russian side of the coin, tracing a clear line from Jacobins to Decembrists, then to Belinsky, Chernyshevsky (I should say CHERNYSHEVSKY in capital letters, he is THE MAN), and from Chernyshevsky in a pretty straight line to Lenin.
        (Please do not include Bakunin in this pantheon, or you will make my ancestors angry, and you do not know to see angry ancestors….)
        In conclusion, we (Marxists) never paid any attention whatsoever to China or Eastern philosophy. (Not that those cultures are bad, just do not contribute anything to classical Marxist intellectual tradition.)
        Just saying that to refute notion that “Marxists” spit on Europe. However, I concede that some people who call themselves Marxists may have gone astray and started to hate Western history. But then they would have to explain why Marx and Engels believed that Western history would culiminate in socialist economic systems.

      • “And speaking of which, WHY did the Europeans finance their adventurers to go sail the seas? To find India. Indian spices, dyes, Chinese silks, etc., that had become blocked off by Ottoman Turkey. The Chinese had all these things at their doorstep!”

        Precious metals were also a motivation. The Chinese also found them valuable.

        “And how many prominent Western wéiqí masters are there?”

        Chess functioned as a Western equivalent. What would be an equivalent to a long history of development of increasingly complex music? People in all societies enjoy music, but not everyone’s music is equally complex. The same can be said of games, and I guess weiqi/go is more complex than chess (I’m just judging by the fact that computers aren’t beating Go masters yet), so the East has historically come out ahead on complex games, but not on complex music.

        “The realistic art originated in northern Italy…”

        And in ancient Greece before that.

        “For a start, the average IQ of US children in 1930 was roughly equal to India’s today.”

        The Flynn Effect has not changed the relative standings of nations/ ancestry-based groups of people. It has lifted all boats equally with one exception: the elites of each group. The Flynn Effect is probably caused by better nutrition and is related to the increase in mean height. But the elites of every nation have always eaten well and have always been tall. If you extrapolate the Flynn Effect back to Archimedes’s time, he will appear to have had the intelligence of a dust mite, but this was obviously not true. The elites of antiquity appear smart to us in recognizably modern ways. This can be seen from their sculpture, poetry, literature, geometry, etc. I once read most of Plutarch’s lives in a Russian translation, same for Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian war. Those were smart guys. All Soviet children had to memorize Euclid’s proofs in school. There was nothing average about the mind that produced them, by modern standards or, I suspect, by any others.

        I expressed myself incorrectly in yesterday’s comment. The population means have risen in the 20th century. From what I’ve read, this increase appears to have stopped because all the benefits from better nutrition have already been maxed out in most places. But the means of the elites have probably remained stable for a long time now. The only thing that could change THOSE is natural selection, and that takes time. Pretty much every society known to us has had well-fed elites.

        • So what you are saying is that the Flynn effect isn’t due to better nutrition otherwise you would expect some areas to have a smaller increase than others because they were in the past already well fed .

          • Well, the Malthusian dynamic assured that a lot of people in every society were poorly fed. While Britain was the world’s leading political and economic power, Dickens put hungry British children in his novels. So yes, well into the 19th century some people went hungry in the richest nations. Once that problem was solved, the mean heights and the mean IQs of the lower classes went up. The elites were unaffected. Obviously, modern British writers aren’t on the whole better than Dickens’s contemporaries, modern European musicians aren’t better than the musicians of Beethoven’s generation, but mail carriers, grave diggers, etc. of native stock are probably smarter now than they were 100 years ago. This makes intuitive sense to me.

            Was there variation among nations in the proportion of poorly-fed people before the Flynn Effect kicked in? Sure. But I have a feeling that perhaps you’re exaggerating the size of that variation in your mind. I was just recently reading the Aubrey-Maturin novels, some of whose action was set in Britain in the early 19th century. There’s no shortage of chronically hungry characters in those books. And again, that was in the most powerful nation on Earth. Before the 20th century no nation was entirely, from top to bottom, well-fed.

            Richard Lynn has compiled IQ data going back to the first decades of the 20th century. What the Flynn Effect failed to change is the relative standings of nations and populations. Nutrition has improved pretty much everywhere. So almost all societies went up by a roughly similar amount. This left the relative standings mostly intact. Sub-Saharan Africa is probably the only area now where nutrition could still improve. Otherwise we’re done. The full potentials have mostly been reached. Both in height and in IQ (and probably in a lot of other areas) these full potentials are different for different populations. It would have been shocking if they weren’t different, by the way. If these full potentials turned out to be the same for every group, then Darwinism would have been pretty much disproved by facts. The creationists would have won (in God’s image = uniformly perfect, since there would have probably been only one God’s image.)

            • Your claim that height of the elite didn’t go up is simply untrue. And your claim that IQ went up everywhere with a roughly similar amount seems to me very unlikely. If you look at what happened with height than there are regions in Europe who were first known as the midgets and now known as the giants of Europe

            • yalensis says:

              On that note, most neurobiologists believe that the human brain has evolved as far as it can ever go. Barring a few tiny, incremental improvements, the human brain cannot really get any bigger or pack in any more neurons (because that would lead to over-heating and over-stimulation of ion channels) In other words, we’re done evolving. What you see is what you get. Perfection itself! Tada!
              (I actually find this depressing news….)

              • Spectator says:

                Neuroscience and genetics are very dynamic fields, so I would revisit those assertions in a few years.

        • Among other things, you’re assuming that elites have a reproductive advantage over non-elites. Is this actually the case? The huge differences in every respect between the classical worlds and the modern may make the observation that the relatively highly-educated demographics have fewer children than others, but …

          • yalensis says:

            Intellectual elites do not necessarily have a reproductive advantage, but political elites certainly do. Powerful men get all the chicks. I’m not joking — historians believe that Genghis Khan fathered literally a thousand children and is the ancestor of millions of people alive today. That was one horny conqueror!

            • But was Genghis Khan exceptional? One example does not a tendency identify.

              • yalensis says:

                Yes, maybe Genghis was a unique individual. But I stand by my assertion that politically powerful men score the chicks. Religious leaders too. Other example: Brigham Young, co-founder of the Mormon Church. He had 100 wives and over 1000 children. Check out a Salt Lake City, Utah phonebook some day, how many pages of Youngs…

          • @Randy,

            Yes, elites do have a huge survival advantage. Numerous observations attest to this.

            For instance, the whole concept of “elite overproduction.” In Malthusian societies, they were the last group to start becoming impoverished during subsistence crises; hence, with higher life expectancy (in particular, more children surviving at birth) they came to constitute a bigger and bigger share of the population. Then during collapses they killed each other off in factional struggles and civil wars.

            Another example. There was once a huge famine on a remote Pacific island (I forgot the name). Almost everyone who survived was in some way related to the ruling class. Another example. On the Titanic, first-class passengers were far more likely to survive than third-class passengers.

            Even the human body militates against low-class individuals, resulting in mortality rates far beyond what can be explained by differences in access to healthy food or quality healthcare. Quite simply humans evolved as hierarchic pack animals; if you’re low-rank, you’re far less useful as far as the group is concerned, and – your wishes regardless – the group doesn’t care that much if you die out. This explains why police brutality against the homeless is matter of course while prosecuting the likes of Khodorkovsky for (real) crimes is “unacceptable”; why the vast majority of every population claims to be middle-class or better whereas in fact many of them are not; etc.

            • Gotcha. Thanks!

            • yalensis says:

              Yeah, I saw this nature documentary once on TV. It was about the lives of wolves. (Secretly filmed by nature cameramen.) There was this one female wolf in the pack who had low status, and the other wolves always picked on her. (I don’t know why, all wolves look pretty much the same to me, but there was something about her the other wolves didn’t like.) This low-status wolf only got to eat scraps from the catch and was skinnier than the higher-ranking wolves. During a time of extreme hunger they drove her out of the pack. The documentary showed how she roamed by herself for a season (apparently this is the origin of the term “lone wolf”, it is a wolf driven out of their pack), she even met a lone male wolf and had two cubs. You were starting to hope that this would turn out to be a real-life Wolf Cinderella story … but no… The wolf for some reason returned to her old pack, with the two cubs. Maybe she was hoping she would return in triumph and get some payback. But here is the really sad part: the pack reluctantly let her back in, but the cubs of the higher-status wolves bullied their lower-status cousins, to the point where one cub actually died from the bullying. The other cub survived but was really skinny and had to put up with a lot of crap. Eventually skinny Wolf mom and Cub were forced to leave the pack again. Very sad… Humans and wolves are not really so different, are we?

    • The Romans found speaking Greek cool. If they have found Egyptian cool you would think that everything was invented by the Egyptians instead of the Greeks as Greek people (and not only Greek people) have the habit to claim every invention as one made by their people.

      • yalensis says:

        Aw, come on! The Greeks truly were exceptional. The Egyptians were not bad, and they did make some astounding discoveries in astronomy, and they also invented the technology of cutting rock, which was a huge step forward for mankind. But then what did they do with this great discovery? They wasted it on building a bunch of silly pyramid-shaped tombs for the ruling class.

        • Have you any proof of the greatness of the Greeks or is the problem more that most of the surviving works from that time are Greek and so are heavily slanted to the Greeks.

          • yalensis says:

            No, I guess I don’t really have any proof. I just feel deep in my bones that the Greeks were AWESOME!!!

    • Glossy:

      “He treats the Chinese failure to grab the bounties of the New World as a matter of luck, even though it can be easily interpreted as a consequence of a conformist personality, of a lack of imagination. Isn’t the latter kind of relevant to his supposed subject of technological innovation? What’s beyond the horizon? Apparently there were more people interested in that question in tiny Portugal than in all of China. ”

      Portugal was a much more marginal country than China, a small kingdom on the fringes of western Europe only recently unified as opposed to a civilization-state with the highest technology in the world and a population numbering several tens of millions. Portugal had to innovate.

      “African labor could have been transported to the empty, scorching-hot parts of Australia. Or maybe it would have been East Indian or SE Asian labor. Or maybe all of those tropical crops would have reached Europe from India. The Age of Discovery started several generations before Columbus. The Portuguese started exploring Africa in the first half of the 15trh century. Tropical crops were always going to be valuable. If America didn’t exist, it would have been created somewhere else. And if it did exist, but Columbus sank, then some other subject of the Spanish or Portuguese crowns would have gotten to it in that decade. That wasn’t a one-off caprice, more like a culmination of a gold rush.”

      Not really. Australia isn’t a land hospitable to large-scale agricultural settlement, with even the relatively good southeast being terribly dry with not good soil. A plantation economy there would be problematic. As for Africa, the epidemological terrors of sub-Saharan Africa made the continent difficult for Europeans into the 20th century–Age of Discovery Europeans wouldn’t be able to handle it.

      America was unique, a place offering substantial resources within a short distance of Europe with many areas being as non-threatening health-wise as the European homeland. Neither China nor India enjoyed those advantages. _Maybe_ a maritime Moroccan empire could have joined in, but I have my doubts.

      • Also the east coast of the Americas is fertile while the west coast is only nice in Chilli and Washington. Other areas are to dry or tropical. And China didn’t need tropical America when it has Southern China (if not South East Asia)

  5. georgesdelatour says:

    Russia was (is?) part of Christendom – which is to say, part of spiritual Europe. It was an active participant in Europe’s cultural conversation. By comparison, Ottoman Turkey was not.

    Europeans invent the novel. Very soon Tolstoy & Dostoyevsky are writing the greatest novels ever, & Chekov some of the greatest plays. The Turkish novel only gets going after Ataturk’s revolution (the earliest Turkish novels anyone notices date from the 1950s). Today Turkey has Orhan Pamuk, who is, of course, a world-class novelist.

    Europeans invent the symphony. Soon Tchaikovsky is writing symphonies as great as Brahms, Mussorgsky is writing great Russian opera, & Russia overtakes France as the greatest ballet nation. In the next generation, Stravinsky, pupil of Rimsky Korsakov, is the most important composer of the C20. Even today Turkey has little in the way of a classical music culture.

    I don’t know if novels & symphonies necessarily lead to industrial takeoff. That’s pushing things too far. But the fact that Russia was an active part of Europe’s cultural conversation must have made Russians pay attention to all the other things that were going on too.

    I think there’s something about European classical music that feels very “high IQ”. Look at any major metropolitan symphony orchestra. There’s always a high proportion of east Asians; some, no doubt, products of Amy Chua style tiger moms who forced them to learn the violin & the piano. East Asians picked up on this quite early. Torakusu Yamaha, the founder of Yamaha, started manufacturing pianos in C19…

    • Russia has in gigantic inferiority complex with Europe. Turkey doesn’t. Russia copies everything from the West. Turkey also develops some of its own culture. There is also the problem that Turkish is very hard to translate into a Western languages while Russia is a Western language. Your novel example is probably more due to the very small number of Turkish-Western language translators in the past than with the missing number of great Turkish novels. And the fact that there are no great Turkish novels from before Ataturk is very simple to explain. Turkish as written now did not exist before 1928

      Classical music is just copy and status seeking and has simply nothing to do with intelligence. Modern classical music, aka metal, is most popular in South America which is not noted for the IQ of its inhabitants. And the only reason a kid picks up a violin is because it is forced to.

      • yalensis says:

        @charly:
        “Classical music is just copy and status seeking and has simply nothing to do with intelligence.”
        NO NO NO NO NO!
        Coincidentally, just yesterday I was listening to a DVD lecture on Music Appreciation (Western classical music), and the instructor was explaining his theory that classical music is a way of pumping high-volume encoded information directly into the human brain, through the aural senses.
        I think this must be true, because when I am listening to a beautiful symphony by Tchaikovsky, or Brahms, or Beethoven, I do begin to feel that they are trying to say something to me that is deep and important (but unfortunately, beyond the comprehension of my tiny brain).

      • This is typically western chauvinist BS. Russia did not copy the “west” like Japan. It was right there in the middle of the pack during the scientific revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. Lomonosov wasn’t the only Russian scientist. Euler was based in St. Petersburg. Look up Dmitri Mendeleev, Alexander Lodygin, Alexander Popov, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Nicolai Lobachevsky, Ilya Mechikov, Nicolai Pirogov, and others. I am not mentioning the 20th century when any claims about Russian being technologically and scientifically backward are hysterically ridiculous. Accusing pioneers of being parrots is grotesque and extremely petty.

      • “Russia has in gigantic inferiority complex with Europe. Turkey doesn’t.” Says who? Ottoman-Turkish history suffers from the same inferiority complex, brought about by real economic and material inferiority, as Russian history. What kind of nation is it that turns their back on their entire history – Islam, their own script, their multiethnic State – to become a Western European-style (French) national-secular State? The only possible answer is a nation (or rather, a political leadership under Ataturk) which is deeply insecure and hateful of its own heritage and culture, believing the only way to “catch up”, is to become Western European.

        Of course Ataturk failed, after being humiliated at Europe’s door for 70+ years, the Turks are only now beginning to escape their inferiority complex under Erdogan’s leadership.

        • It hasn’t have the gigantic proportions of the Russians

        • In the defense of the Turks, the status quo associated with the Ottoman Empire had failed catastrophically to the tune of the death of a sizable double-digit percentage of the Ottoman Empire’s population and the near-extinction of the Turkish state. Pushing through radical reforms aimed at Europeanizing Turkey, if more extremely and thoroughly than whatever Ottoman-era reformers planned, was probably the most constructive likely move. Absent that, Turkey wouldn’t be nearly in the same relatively good shape that it is now.

    • Europeans invent the novel.

      Not quite.

      Today Turkey has Orhan Pamuk, who is, of course, a world-class novelist.

      I tried to read My Name is Red a few years ago. I only managed to get through a quarter of it or so before giving up. I get the impression he is mostly famous for his political stunts.

      But the fact that Russia was an active part of Europe’s cultural conversation must have made Russians pay attention to all the other things that were going on too.

      The “paying attention” part is one I certainly agree with. Muscovite rulers were preoccupied with maintaining some kind of military parity with their Western neighbors since the 16th century. And despite its meager economic base, by devoting most of its energies to the military and related industries (e.g. Russia was Europe’s premier iron producer during the 18th century, using serf labor to mine the Urals), it was able to succeed at this.

  6. georgesdelatour says:

    Anatoly

    I love the Tale Of Genji, & maybe it was the first novel. But there’s no connective chain of influence from it to western novels and on to Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky etc. So my point still stands.

    Russia’s “paying attention” wasn’t just military. Have you read Ivan the Terrible’s (rather rude) letter to Queen Elizabeth I? Didn’t Peter The Great set out to embrace western culture (architecture, Rembrandt paintings etc), not just western armed force? The fact that Russian leaders since Ivan emulated the west culturally, rather than China or Turkey, suggests they already saw that this was the ascendant culture. Which rather contradicts Pomeranz…

    Craig Willy

    I disagree. I think Ataturk was – unassailably – the greatest political leader of the C20. In fact, if I was drawing up a list of the greatest 100 leaders of the C20, I’d leave positions 2 to 19 blank, just so there was no suggestion it was a close run thing. In his time, rather than ours, Ataturk saw that his country might be completely eaten alive by the western powers. He saw – correctly – the pressing need to emulate the qualities which made those western powers strong, rather than hold on to those qualities which made Turkey weak. Good call.

    • I don’t deny that Turkey needed to catch up. I deny any relationship between catching up and use of Latin script, abolition of the Caliphate and the attempt to create a mono-ethnic nation-state (eviction of the Greeks, eternal oppression of the Kurds).

      Of course we can praise Ataturk for expelling the Western forces from Turkey and securing the new nation’s borders against Western colonialist designs. This was prior to the reforms. Incidentally, Turkey DID NOT achieve anything remotely like a catch up after Ataturk’s reforms because there was, quite simply, no relationship between “hard” cultural Westernization and modernization. (I think of what the Meiji Japanese, whose elites and culture I would think were no more “Western” than that of the Ottoman Empire, probably less so.)

    • The whole trope about Russian leaders emulating the west is tired and basically untrue. Just because the Russian royals imported some paintings does not mean there were no original painters in Russia. Western royals also bought foreign paintings, were they emulating the foreigners? The Cold War has drilled into the minds of people the notion that Russia is the unwest. Any objective analysis shows that Russia was yet another European power with nothing bizarrely decoupled about its culture from the west. Russia is not an analogue for Japan. Culture (fashion, technology) was actively adopted by all European states. There is not one European state that completely ignored its neighbours and set the trend all on its own. This is the mythical entity being labeled as “the west” in this discussion.

  7. yalensis says:

    On Chinese medicine: I happened to hear a piece on the radio yesterday while driving to work. I can’t source it, because I don’t even know what station I was listening to; but anyhow, the narrator was talking about the fact that Chinese government is getting ready to invest HUGE $$$ in stem-cell research and modern medicine.
    I am glad to hear that Chinese are finally adopting “Western” medicine. Cultural relativists may disagree, but is fact that traditional Chinese medicine (while empirically achieving certain practical albeit limited results in areas like botanicals and acupuncture) is based on a false theory (=some kind of mystical life force called “chi”). In fact, Chinese physicians over the centuries never even figured out basic anatomical principles, and it took European medicine to finally come up with an accurate “plumbing diagram” of the blood circulation system.
    To be fair, many European people also believe in mystical voodoo medicine, for example chiropractors. In any European/American city, there are more chiropractors per square kilometer than real doctors. And these quacks (not limiting themselves to harming peoples skeletons) also base their work on a false mystical theory similar to “chi”, which they call “innate intelligence” of the nervous system, and other non-scientific concepts which cannot be proved or disproved.

    • Yalensis: And then there’s homeopathy…

    • When it comes to pharmaceuticals, western medicine ain’t so hot. Thousands of years of trial and error with plant-derived medicine is worth quite a bit. Of course tiger penis is primitive shaman “medicine” and a joke, but that is not the limit of Chinese medicine.

      • yalensis says:

        Yes, that is true. Western pharmaceuticals is ultimately based on plant medicine. (Although nowadays they don’t need actual plants any more once they figure out which molecule is the active ingredient and can synthesize in the laboratory.) And also trial and error. (More error than trial sometimes, it seems…) Since earliest times humans have been empirically testing various plants and herbs (“Let’s see what this one does… Oh great, my headache went away!”)

  8. Glad you liked it. Want some follow-on reading?

    Doug M.

  9. Spectator says:

    AK said:
    “I don’t think the hieroglyphics system did China any good, but they certainly can’t explain The Great Divergence.”

    One thing that is often overlooked is that China wasn’t always the size it is today. The people who write with “hanzi” (or hanja, or kanji) for the most part did not speak the same language. If it weren’t for the logographic system, Chinese people from different provinces would not have been able to communicate with one another for upwards of 3,000 years. Likewise syntax and vocabulary have molded to fit with Han characters.

    Even a few decades ago it was possible to communicate with Koreans (and very simply with Japanese) using hanzi; this was more prominent in dynastic eras.

    Glossy said:
    “He missed realistic portrayal of the human form and of human emotion in art. Why is that important? Not just because it can be visually stirring.”

    Since time immemorial European art has generally been funded by monarchs and ecclesiasticals, for their use and their use alone. The idea of museums and “art for all” is a relatively novel concept, and the commonly held notion that the typical European had broad access is, to borrow, post hoc chauvinistic nonsense.

    China’s society (at all times up until the modern era) simply was not stratified enough (believe it or not, I will expound later) to concentrate so much money in the hands of a few; when China funded grand projects they were walls, bridges, canals or waterworks. They rarely, if ever, commissioned massive temples (Temple of David, Parthenon) which are beautiful but not particularly conducive to either the survival of the state or the benefit of the people.

    Everyone here I’m sure knows of the Great Wall, fewer of the Grand Canal, but there is another large infrastructure project that the vast majority of people haven’t heard of i.e the Turpan Water System which allowed China to secure the Silk Road and project power across Xinjiang (then called “Xiyu”) and Central Asia for thousands of years:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Turfan_water_system
    This irrigation system of special connected wells originated during the Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 24 CE).[2]

    In Xinjiang, the greatest number of karez wells are in the Turpan Depression, where today there remain over 1100 karez wells and channels having a total length of over 5,000 kilometres (3,100 mi)

    This is nearly 6x the length of the famous Roman Aqueducts.

    Are people important as unique individuals or as faceless actors performing roles typical for their stations in life?

    This question logically follows: are helots and other slaves people? They were certainly not considered fit to be citizens, and thus were stripped of almost all rights. They made up anywhere from 30-90% of the population and this tradition of slavery persisted all throughout European history. China, on the other hand, saw a peak slave population of, if I recall, 0.8-1.3% of the population – most of whom were foreigners who sold themselves into slavery, invaders, or criminals.

    That is not even to speak of indentured servitude or serfdom or debt-slavery and the resultant chronic class warfare seen in Western European societies up until this very second.

    Does irrigation even make sense anywhere in Europe? Most of the continent seems pretty wet as it is.

    A clear advantage – rice agriculture is labor intensive and the North required constant maintenance/building of dams and were still prone to floods and erosion. To produce a good calorie of food in China, you had to put in (I’d guess) twice the work, at least. This leaves precious little labor to do much else.

    I’m not a doctor, but does Chinese medicine do any good to anyone even today?

    You’d be surprised. They had prototypical innoculations; artemisinin (afaik the world’s best anti-malarial) was derived from Chinese medicine as well. It’s unrefined, but was well-equipped to handle many of the problems of the time.

    Why didn’t China ever grab any colonies that weren’t next door to it already? One thing’s for sure: it wasn’t because of humanitarianism. Top contenders for an explanation: centralization, lack of curiosity.

    Are you so sure it wasn’t humanitarianism? China has a long history of not only tolerating laughably weak polities on their immediate border but aiding them when they came under military threat (see: Tocharians, Han-Xiongnu War). You can find a detailed history of the settlement of Taiwan through google, but long story short they came upon tribals using machetes and throwing weapons, and instead of slaughtering them all with the European-style muskets (or was it arquebuses) they irrigated their land for free and then *rented* it from them. The Qing court repeatedly passed laws and restrictions to reduce pressure on the aborigine population – they forbade interethnic marriage (instead demanding that the mostly male settlers bring in wives from the mainland), drew a line that could not be crossed by settlers, and arbitrated frequently on behalf of the natives.

    The Taiwanese census may reveal a 2% self-identification rate but the reality is at least 40-60% of Taiwanese have a significant amount of aboriginal blood.

    The notion that China was an inhumane dictatorship in dynastic times is nothing more than propaganda.

    it can be easily interpreted as a consequence of a conformist personality, of a lack of imagination. Isn’t the latter kind of relevant to his supposed subject of technological innovation? What’s beyond the horizon?

    As has been stated, China had no need to sail across the world – India was already close by, and they had already been trading for thousands of years. Apparently if China lacked innovative spirit and imagination, continental Europe lacked the guts and resolve to secure an Eastern land route. No Ottoman Empire was able to squat on the Chinese side of the Silk Road.

    But most of China had excellent water transport. It developed all those canals for irrigation.

    Again, not for free.

    No genetic good luck, huh? OK, why did this particular favorable outcome (steam engines in 18th century Britain) occur in the same small corner of the world as the earlier scientific revolution

    Apparently this “genetic good luck” as a shelf life of 1870-2020, which could arguably make the Anglo-American experiment the laughing stock of history.

    Of course, the drive to climb the Everest (their own damn mountain), together with the Everest’s name, came from Brits too.

    Ignoring all those pesky Tibetans who not only took it upon themselves to climb it, but to settle the periphery for thousands of years despite the cold.

    95% of the modern sciences bear Greek names in most modern languages

    Along with 99% of modern financial collapse narratives.

    The Age of Discovery started several generations before Columbus

    Yes, specifically the Ainuids or Polynesians that boat-skipped over to the New World, apparently.

    People in all societies enjoy music, but not everyone’s music is equally complex.

    Likewise, people in all societies enjoy music, but taste is not evenly distributed. European nobles commissioned all of this nice music at the expense of the common Europeans, and who listens to it today? Who plays it best?

  10. Spectator says:

    Excuse me, not Temple of David but you know which one I’m talking about. And I have no idea how attractive it was at the time, I just assumed. :)

  11. Spectator says:

    Also, the Tibetan name for Everest is Qomolangma. I can’t be bothered to look up the Chinese name for the Pacific Ocean, but many naming conventions changed during the Qing, including Xiyu to Xinjiang.

    Likewise, when you say “their own damn mountain” I take this as an endorsement of Chinese control over all of Greater Tibet including the region around Lhasa.

    • yalensis says:

      @spectator: You make a lot of good points. I believe you have successfully dispelled many stereotypes about China. Thank you.

  12. sinotibetan says:

    Hello all,

    Am I the only Chinese ‘here’? Very, very interesting discussion! Many of you have such persuasive arguments that I don’t even know where to begin. I hope you all would bear with my ‘formless’ and seemingly ‘directionless’ comments and hope some would find them worthy to be commented upon. Some ramdom thoughts:-
    1.)In ‘defence’ of Western classical music:-
    @charly:
    “Classical music is just copy and status seeking and has simply nothing to do with intelligence.”
    I generally agree with yalensis’ comments. SOME classical music might be ‘copy and status’ – perhaps some of Handel’s works(doubtless his modern-day fans might strongly disagree) but to dismiss any of Bach’s , Mozart’s(despite earlier ‘daintiness’), Chopin’s, Tschaikovsky’s works (for example) as ‘simply nothing to do with intelligence’ is untrue. For example Bach’s 48 Preludes and Fugues or the great second movement of Brandenburg Concerto No. 6 in B flat major , I think are beautiful and ‘very intellectual’ music. In composing a fugue, the composer has to come up with a theme called the ‘subject’ in the key intended for the fugue. The fugue is supposed to have a minimum of two ‘parts’ and some have up to five parts if the fugue is intended for a solo keyboardist. Each ‘part’ is analogous to ‘a singer’ if it were a choral work. Then after exposition of the ‘subject’, another part will state the ‘answer’ – which is the same theme as the ‘subject’ but in another key- usually the dominant key. This ‘answer’ will be harmonized by a ‘countersubject’ which would either be a ‘regular countersubject’ or else one-off. The ‘subject’ and ‘answer’ will occur throughout the fugue modulated into other keys -eg subdominant , median, other ‘unrelated keys’ etc. In between are ‘episodes’ where certain ‘motifs’ from the subject and/or countersubject would be ‘used’. Or else, new ‘motifs’ /themes might be devised. Most of the time, these parts are ‘harmonized’ so as to be able to ‘sound good’ with two or more permutations(‘counterpoint’). Occasionally, a devise called ‘stretto’ is used in which before a subject has been completed, it is harmonized by a subject or answer and these can be in many permutations. Sometimes the ‘speed’(tempo) of the subject is augmented or diminished and made to harmonize with the ‘original tempo’ subject/answer in stretti. Etc. etc. etc. – depending on the creativity of the composer. Nothing to do with intelligence? It requires a composer of great intellect to devise such a musical composition! I dare say that modern music(pop, rock etc.) may not be comparable(‘inferior’?) to some of these works. Sorry for this long, meandering comment but I am a classical music fan, hence the ‘defence’.

    http://server3.pianosociety.com/protected/bach-bwv886-carnevale.mp3

    The Fugue in A flat major in the above website is a jewel of baroque contrapuntal music. The ‘chromatic’ countersubject is so artfully crafted!

    BTW, I think Chinese music is, even the classical ones – though I do like some contemporary Chinese pop – are ‘inferior’ to western classical music in terms of ‘form’ and ‘logic’.

    2.)“Russia has in gigantic inferiority complex with Europe.”
    Actually, Russia is European[culturally and for ethnic Russians, ethnically](as someone pointed out) but being ‘geopolitically different’ from the rest of the European states because part of the country is in Asia(ie geopolitically ‘Eurasian’). I think for the most part, the other European powers were(are still?) partly fearful of Russia in terms of that massive geopolitical ‘size’. I wonder if North Americans(including Americans) and other countries colonized by former European powers have inferiority complex with Europe(at least ‘culturally’ as these nations are ‘culturally derived’ from some European states). I don’t know about Africans and Middle Easterners, but I think all of East Asia and the Indian subcontinent, generally have an inferiority complex with Europe or people who are ethnically Europeans. For example, the Japanese preoccupation with dyeing their hair blond or having cartoons with uncharacteristically un-East Asian ‘large’ eyes may be a symptom of an inner inferiority complex? I myself, in the past, felt ‘inferior’ to Westerners and I think that in some instances, that ‘feeling’ is not without justification. Most of the scientific and mathematical breakthroughs that define our modern era were accomplished by Europeans or those descended from Europeans. It’s a fact that cannot be denied. I have even wondered (perhaps like glossy) that perhaps Europeans are innately smarter than us Asians(and other ‘races’)? How come our civilizations failed to contribute in much meaningful and positive way to humanity – especially in science and technology – how come we are backward? I don’t know the answers to these but I attempt to offer some possibilities in this long comment.

    3.) Certainly ‘culture’ does lead to the divergence between Europe and China. Some broadbrush generalizations now. I think deep within ‘European’ psyche is idealism. European peoples are people who love ideas. There is something within them that stirs that restlessness to discover things and to think of ‘previously unthought of’ thoughts. There is some sort of a rebellious nature in them to challenge the ‘status quo’. Daring. Flamboyant. Willing to chart the unknowns. I think that’s ‘European’. “why is it?”/”what caused it” – etc. Europeans like to know WHY things are as they are…and can that be changed/be manipulated upon if the fundamentals of things can be understood? Admittedly, this ‘attitude’ became even more enhanced from the Renaissance onwards- not sure why.
    Whereas we Chinese are, to use a Hokkien slang – ‘kiasi’ and ‘kiasu’ = scared of death and scared of ‘losing face’. We are ‘insular’ in our psyche. The Great Wall of Chine speaks of this ‘insularity’. We call our country till this day “The Middle Country”. Until we ‘met’ the Europeans in the last few centuries with superior scientific and technological achievements, we thought we already had a highly developed civilization – indigeneous in development – and that the rest – north, south, west and east of us were mere ‘barbarians’. The Vietnamese and Koreans were our vassals. Moreover, we created our own civilization while the Japanese, Vietnamese and Koreans ‘borrowed’ our civilization and written language. Trade was for acquisition of stuff we do not have in our native country. But we felt self-sufficient. We did not think that we ‘need’ any other nation. We are a more pragmatic people. In terms of Michiavellian politics and war strategies – sure we ‘progressed’. But we never bother to ask why does water behave as it is, or question that perhaps diseases are not caused by some warlock curse. We got stuck with accepting the status quo.

    Any comments?

    sinotibetan

    • Spectator says:

      I am Chinese and have had the luxury of never feeling inferior to Europeans (or any ethnic or racial group) ever.

      The reason why Europe excelled was because, in short, it relegated almost 30% of its own population (not to mention others) to subhuman status all throughout history. This creates a lot of capital for the “smartest” people to use.

      It also gave birth to the musical and art culture which was exclusively accessible by the 1% elite, walled off from the unwashed mashes of slaves, indentured servants, commoners, etc. But music carries well over time, so this is easily overlooked.

      uncharacteristically un-East Asian ‘large’ eyes

      Many Japanese people have large eyes – larger than that of European’s – because of Ainuid and Austronesian admixture. The hair dying, however, is an abomination I agree.

      European peoples are people who love ideas.

      Elite Europeans, yes. The other 85% of them, not so much.

      The Great Wall of Chine speaks of this ‘insularity’

      Then why is there no Great Wall between China and Tibet? Korea? Japan? Indochina? India (the few mountain passes, of course)?

      The Great Wall was pragmatic, not so much xenophobic. It worked well against intermittent nomadic raids and prevented them from escaping with loot.

      Whereas we Chinese are, to use a Hokkien slang – ‘kiasi’ and ‘kiasu’ = scared of death and scared of ‘losing face’.

      I question this. Northerners have never been afraid of death, and if they were, they don’t really show it.

      But we never bother to ask why does water behave as it is, or question that perhaps diseases are not caused by some warlock curse.

      The writings of many a polymath statesman beg to differ.

      • sinotibetan says:

        Dear Spectator,
        Thanks for your comments! Are you a Chinese from China? I am not from China though. I belong to part of the Chinese diaspora in south east Asia. Many interesting points you brought up. Thanks for them!

        1.)Although there was a point in the past that I felt our people seemed ‘inferior’ to peoples in the West/Europe, that period has been gotten over with. I am at peace with who I am and my people, the Chinese. I can accept negative and positive attributes of my people, our strengths and weaknesses without any trappings of a sense of inferiority.

        2.) Regarding the Japanese, I sense that physical anthropologically-wise, they seemed to be a blend of ‘two peoples’? One strand which appeared closer, in terms of physical appearances, to Northern Chinese or Korean and a great majority actually seemed similar in physical appearance to the Southern Chinese like the Fujianese or Cantonese even – this is true, in my opinion, especially with regards to Japanese ladies. Japanese men tend to have more expression of “Ainu” features(if I’m not mistaken these aboriginals are distantly related to the ‘Gilyaks’ in Siberia?) – wavy hair, more ‘hairy’ and a distinctive ‘Japanese’ look very rarely if ever seen in Chinese men. However, genotypically – apparently the Japanese seemed close to Tibetan in an article I read some time back. Which seems strange when these two peoples are physically quite dissimiliar.

        3.)”Elite Europeans, yes. The other 85% of them, not so much.”
        I am not too sure about this. It might have been true in olden times but perhaps not so today? If we compare European elites and Chinese elites of the past and current
        European and Chinese intellectuals, we seem more pragmatic whereas the Europeans seem more idealistic in my opinion. In my country at least, when I speak to ethnic Chinese intellectuals of ‘comparable stature’ to ethnic Europeans, there is a tendency for Chinese to have a more limited scope of interests, a certain lack of curiosity if some thought/idea is of ‘no material benefit’(especially MONEY) whereas Europeans tend to do things even if such material benefits seem dim – ‘idea for idea’s sake’ – the ego of thinking something that’s never been thought of before rather than just because such idea can benefit humanity or himself materially ONLY. It’s a generalization, of course …and times are changing as well – many Chinese intellectuals don’t fit the description but I thought it is still so, in general. Perhaps it’s different in China? I feel Chinese pragmatism – a positive attribute in times of crisis – is a stumbling block to challenge the status quo – or to borrow Star Trek – ‘go boldly where no man has gone before’. Ingenuity requires that ‘juvenile’ thinking of daring to oppose fate and what the majority insist is ‘impossible’ or ‘beyond common sense’. Pragmatic thinking would have never come up with quantum mechanics or led anyone to discover DNA! We Chinese need to learn some idealism from the Western elites! Not too much, just optimal. Pragmatism and idealism must be ‘balanced’. I think the West has too much idealism and that’s bad too. Ideals don’t solve economic or political problems(and this is the error of ‘Russian liberals’ who hanker on some idealistic notions). I feel I am more ‘idealistic’ than most of my compatriots and sometimes their pragmatism bore me because no one among them would be interested in talking about DNA made out of L-deoxyribose rather than D-deoxyribose -( ‘mirror’ ‘life)’ and I always had to ‘come down to earth’ to talk very petty things, for example. Talking to a European/Western intellectual of comparable stature would, usually, have evoked a passionate discussion. But as I’ve said, times are changing and I’ve now met many Chinese intellectuals who are ‘as idealistic’ and to me that’s a positive sign that Asians might one day achieve great heights in scientific discovery.

        4.)”The Great Wall was pragmatic”
        Indeed it was. But also an emblem of our sense of self-sufficiency and belief that our civilization is the centre of the world?
        Korea – it was a vassal state most of the time. A vassal state needed no great wall.
        Japan – it was separated by a sea. The Japanese were more often raiding our long-suffering vassal, the Koreans in later centuries. Earlier, the Japanese borrowed from us and Tang Dynasty had so much influence on Japan in those early years.
        Indochina – Vietnam was a rather rebellious and unwilling vassal of ours. They were under us for almost a thousand years! Like the Koreans, we did not need a great wall for the Vietnamese. The Koreans and Vietnamese – even at times of rebellion – were not as threatening to the Dragon Throne inasmuch as the Turkic and Mongolic people up north. Hence, the Chinese built those great walls to reduce this Turko-Mongolic threat. The rest of Indochina – they were culturally influenced by India and their ‘political interests’ were southwards and these barely threatened to overthrow any dynastic regimes in ancient China unlike the Huns, Turks, Jurchens, Khitans etc.
        As for Tibet I speculate that in spite of Tibetan-Mongolic threats to ancient Chinese regimes, the Mongolic ones like the Jurchens(who later morphed into Manchurians) and Mongolian proper seemed to necessitate a great wall ‘encasing’ the North but less so the Western frontier?

        “It worked well against intermittent nomadic raids and prevented them from escaping with loot.”
        I am not so convinced. The Manchurian Aisin-Gioro Dorgon went through the Great Wall ‘easily’ enough! Thanks to betrayers like Wu Sangui!

        5.)”I question this. Northerners have never been afraid of death”
        I think you are quite right about this. Yes, I think my generalization fails for Northerners. My ancestors were from the south – and I think Southerners are more ‘docile’ compared to Northerners. Perhaps that’s why most dynasties were founded by Northerners and quite a few by Mongolic tribes (Jurchens, Khitans).

        BTW…for Russian commentors here : if I am not mistaken, China is called ‘Kitay’ in Russian, right? The etymology of the word is Khitan – who founded the Liao Dynasty in Northern China. The archaic English term for China – Cathay – had the same root.

        sinotibetan

        • Spectator says:

          The Japanese are probably some mash of “Altaic” speakers, Chinese (North and South), Austronesians and Ainuids (haplotype D). The similarity to Tibetans is y-DNA haplotype D; these people are suspected to have populated the periphery of mainland Asia and the Japanese islands tens of thousands of years ago. Their remnants were most likely absorbed by migrants from Northern China who would later become the Tibetan people.

          Note that there is a lot of internal variation within Tibet just as there is in any other macroregion of East Asia.

          As far as the pragmatism of Chinese intellectual elites, it’s more a thing of necessity than anything. Being able to think casually about open-ended subjects is a luxury afforded to elite Europeans (and Indians) by the oppression of the vast majority of their own people if not others.

          Believe it or not, “wealth concentration” is more pronounced in all Western societies than China – the headline figures tend to be of income, which are of little use after you run the numbers through taxes and expenses.

          Many are dazzled by the West’s elite culture (classical music, fine art, haute cuisine, science) but don’t realize that the cost in human lives and money to fund this high culture is exorbitant. China could create something similar if they simply denied all support to the poorest 20, 30% of their population via neoliberal economic policy.

          With 30% of the population now starving and illiterate (as per India) they’d be able to shift $4-5 trillion of $16-18 trillion total national wealth into the hands of capitalist class elites who tend to be the ones that win market share and churn out patents, artwork and Nobels.

          China would then have the brilliant Indian start-ups and some inklings of the Western high culture many disillusioned PRC nationals are so envious of. The price would be tens of millions of corpses every year. That, of course, would doom China’s long-term prospects just as they doomed Greece and Rome’s, but the intangible legacy would be enormous.

          As for the Great Wall, it served its purpose up until the Manchu were let through the Shanhai pass, the fact that it was able to hold them off from taking advantage of Ming’s chaos and slow decline speaks of its worth.

          • yalensis says:

            @spectator: You make another good point that funding a world-class intellectual elite can be at odds with economic democracy:

            Many are dazzled by the West’s elite culture (classical music, fine art, haute cuisine, science) but don’t realize that the cost in human lives and money to fund this high culture is exorbitant. China could create something similar if they simply denied all support to the poorest 20, 30% of their population via neoliberal economic policy.

            There is a lot of truth in this. If only there were a way to have both intellectual high culture AND economic democracy too!
            Speaking as Russian: Tsarist Russia, as you know, produced a world-class intellectual and artistic elite, while masses of people were dirt poor. During Communist period, due to limited resources, Soviet Union struggled to produce “proletarian” writers, artists, etc. Some of them were pretty good, but admittedly not as great as the “bourgeois” talents who had preceded them. Western criticisms of Soviet culture are valid in this respect, albeit exagerrated and mean-spirited.
            Unable to create original culture at a world-class level, Soviet compromise was to focus on PRESERVING great culture of the past. Some might sneer at this as monkey-like “copying”, but nonetheless as a result of this policy, classical ballet, opera, symphonies, etc., were maintained better than anywhere else in the world. Also, millions of common people got access to great culture. In Soviet times (this is no myth), an average worker could purchase a ticket costing just a couple of roubles to Bolshoi or Kirov theater. [Admittedly, I am idealizing a tad… sometimes these tickets were hard to get if one did not have connections via the workplace or trade union…]
            Anyhow, once he was lucky enough to get a ticket, this ordinary worker could thus attend a world-class production of some great work from the past (let’s say, “Il Trovatore”). During the intermission, he could attend the buffet and enjoy some caviar and champagne, again for just a couple of roubles. (I am not making this up, it really was this way.) Hence, the worker could enjoy an affordable, but meaningful, cultural experience that would have been beyond his means during Tsarist times.
            In short, Soviet Union helped to preserve European classical tradition. Soviet ballet dancers, singers, etc., were among the best in the world. Also, great works of art were nourished and preserved in great museums like Tretiakov.
            There is a kind of greatness to this, no? Soviet government was not wealthy, but was able to allocate sufficient funds to preserve existing culture and, in doing so, provided intellectual stimulation to the masses, as well as valuable training and jobs for dancers and artists.

            • However, the Soviets put contemporary art into a straight-jacket by forcing it to conform to the ideology. Of course, over the years this waxed and waned in strictness; but the result was that films were funded (and shot) but then left on the shelf; books written and then banned (or simply not published); pictures painted but not shown; etc.

              As an interesting counterpoint to this, Poland (also not a rich place) became the cultural powerhouse of the Eastern bloc after 1956, largely because censorship was more relaxed than in the USSR and the cultural bureaucrats were less overbearing.

            • Spectator says:

              I believe you, yalensis. I am admittedly ignorant on the subject but my take is that the Soviets did well not just for high culture but especially for science and technology.

              I don’t understand where the “copying” accusation comes from, if that were the case than everyone in Western Eurasia outside of some regions of Italy and the Middle East is also “copying”

              There is a lot of truth in this. If only there were a way to have both intellectual high culture AND economic democracy too!

              In my opinion high culture and science output depends a lot on the sheer number of people beyond some given threshold in terms of financial resources.

              In America having so many rich supported by legions of poor has pushed many elite families well into the capitalist/intellectual caste before one would expect given America’s overall financial situation.

              Based on this theory I would predict that Japan and the rest of developed East Asia is approaching a scientific and cultural golden age, as there’s a huge concentration of middle class asset-holders approaching say, $500,000 in net worth – which is a good figure for start-ups or supporting starving artist offspring.

    • I didn’t claim that Mozart wasn’t brilliant but the playing classical music is just copying. You also can’t compare contemporary music with classical music without realizing that Mozart’s contemporaries are long forgotten while the present not brilliant composers are still known.

      • sinotibetan says:

        Charly,

        1.)Playing any music is ‘copying’ – to a certain extent. The musician playing any piece of work is supposed to be a ‘secondary’ musician – interpretation is supposed to be part of his skill. Not comparable with the intelligence needed to compose a piece of music. Sure just playing classical music requires more of interpretative skills and technical virtuosity rather than the kind of ‘higher’ intellect in musical composition. In that sense, I agree with you…but it’s not just consigned to classical but to all genre. Even if we were to take Jazz, the performer is in a way still ‘copying’ because chord progressions and improvisations are more ‘fuzzy’ and lack the ‘organizational’ ability in let’s say composing a symphony(I can’t stand Bruckner though and ‘avant garde’ composers are just as ‘fuzzy’) whereas in pop, I’d say a catchy memorable tune is of utmost importance. Etc. etc.

        2.) Present brilliant composers – they are brilliant in their own right if we talk about novel chord progressions and ‘tune/melody composition’ – yet none, I dare say, achieve the kind of finesse in ‘organizational compositional thought’ like those in the classical era. Brilliant but not quite match up with past masters.

        3.)I think current music(as seen in such genre as hip-hop, reggae, rap etc.) have massive dose of African influence. The focus is on rhythm and less on melody and harmony – which I’d say is distinctively ‘European’. I think nowadays, too much on rhythmic complexity but lacking in tonal/harmonic complexity. Somehow, less ‘intellectual’ music – evoking ‘party emotion’ but lacking on other ‘feelings’ such as ‘contemplation’, ‘pathos’, ‘nostalgia’, ‘joy’ etc… I don’t know whether you understand what I’m talking about!

        BTW, contemporary Chinese music has caught up with the Western trends of rap(which I have to say I dislike) and others of the like. Less composers in the Far East compose good songs based on the traditional pentatonic scale.

        sinotibetan

  13. sinotibetan says:

    “I’m not a doctor, but does Chinese medicine do any good to anyone even today?”
    Only very few examples:-
    Arsenic trioxide, found in some Chinese remedies to treat cancer, was recently discovered by Chinese researchers to be a useful agent for APML – acute promyelocytic leukaemia. It’s one of the standard treatment for relapsed APML(and in resource poor countries like India – first line).
    Acupuncture was found to be as good as anti-emetics in a randomized controlled trial of cancer patients on chemotherapy.
    Unfortunately, I think most ‘Chinese medicine’ are:
    1.) Not efficacious for serious illnesses such as cancer. Partly because the ‘basis’ of Chinese medicine is based on some faulty ‘pseudoscience’ which our ancients believed.(An anecdote I heard was that when traditional Chinese medical practitioners at the end of the 19th Century found out that the liver was on the right side of the upper abdomen, they were shocked and thought that may account for the European’s ‘conquering’ attitude. Ancient Chinese apparently thought the liver was on the left upper quadrant of the abdomen and they never bothered to question this ‘belief’! BTW, there is a condition called situs invertus in which the heart is on the right, the liver is on the left etc…)
    2.)Possibly harmful in some cases. In my part of the world, I think it is associated with a very severe condition called severe aplastic anaemia.

    Rationally and scientifically designed molecules are the way to go in medical advancement. Chinese medicinal herbs , though, might be where we might look for such molecules to be refined and embellished to be pharmacologically useful. Not with pseudoscience as basis but rational, logical , scientific basis in drug development.

    sinotibetan

  14. sinotibetan says:

    I don’t know why my English is so bad today…. Hope you guys forgive me for that….

    sinotibetan

    • yalensis says:

      Hello, @sinotibetan! Don’t worry, your English is fine! Anyhow, agree with you on Chinese medicine. Like I mentioned above, I was happy to hear on the radio that Chinese government is planning to invest in stem-cell research. This area is very promising for future treatments, cures, etc. I believe stem-cell research was invented in West, but Western governments are now too cash-poor to proceed with this expensive research. So hopefully Chinese scientists (maybe Russian scientists too) can pick up the baton and make some advancements in this field.
      Chinese doctors thought the liver was on the LEFT? I am astonished. Did they never cut open a person and see with their own eyes where the liver was? What about butchers? When they butchered an animal, surely they must have noticed where the liver was?
      In Europe, the study of human anatomy was helped by two inter-related studies: medicine and representational art. Artists like Leonardo DaVinci used to pay thieves to steal corpses so he could cut them open and see how the parts worked. This satisfied his scientific curiosity, and also helped him be a better painter of the human form.
      In ancient Rome people were very aware where every organ was located. Maybe this is because the Romans were so warlike (and also had people fight to the death in the arena), so they had witnessed many gory scenes and were all too familiar what the inside of a person looked like.
      Even the ancient Greeks… I recall some passage in Homer’s Iliad, I forget the exact words, but it was something like, “… and then Hector’s sword did pierce straight through the noble Patrokles liver and came out through the back of his second vertebrae…”

      • sinotibetan says:

        Hi yalensis,

        Thanks for the comments!

        1.) I think one thing I forgot to say is that too often the mystical gets enmeshed with all forms of knowledge and perhaps(I am speculating, I am not sure- perhaps Spectator might know more) that’s the case with ancient Chinese medicine. I think the mystical might have even superseded their own sight of where the liver is positioned in the human body even?
        I think one important development – at least amongst European intellectuals – was the ‘scientific method’ and the rise of skepticism : untying mystical/religious from ‘explaining’ every physical phenomena. Perhaps that is one important paradigm shift that helped Europe spur on to great scientific discoveries. Whereas mystical/religious explanations for natural phenomena were not challenged in other civilizations – including Chinese civilization?

        2.)Regarding stem cells – one of my interests as well. Promising indeed!

        sinotibetan

  15. “He missed realistic portrayal of the human form and of human emotion in art. Why is that important? Not just because it can be visually stirring. A focus on the individual is a sign of deeper things, as is its lack. Is that a picture of an idealized ruler or of Pericles, of an idealized philosopher or of Aristotle? In the Western case we have portraits of actual individuals. As far as I know, in all other pre-modern cultures we only have idealized forms. If I was writing a book “systematically” comparing Western Civ. with others, I’d mention this seemingly very important difference. ”

    But you’d be wrong, realistic art existed in pre-modern cultures outside of Europe.
    One example I know are the sculptures of the Yorubas, which were perfectly life-like

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoruba_traditional_art

    and see page 15 of this doc
    http://hearstmuseum.berkeley.edu/outreach/pdfs/yoruba_teaching_kit.pdf

    This is just one aspect of Yoruba culture where very stylized statues also exist, but then having realistic and stylized hand in hand is found everywhere. Anatoly cited Northern Italy as the origin of realistic art, you replied it was already found in ancient Greece, let me remind the connection between the two whichare the Byzantines, who never lost the ancient art forms and techniques and taught them to Italians- but interestingly, a lot of the byzantine art doesn’t seek realism which is one of the reason it is appreciated.

    • “the Byzantines, who never lost the ancient art forms…”

      This is incorrect. They did lose the ancient artistic traditions. Their art was for the most part formulaic, graceless, inelegant (well, except for the architecture), impersonal where ancient Greek and Renaissance art was variable, expressive, elegant, personal. Even if one chooses to abstain from pure judgment (and why would you? are you a man or a machine?), the fact remains that the ancient artistic traditions were lost after the 5th century AD. Something entirely new was born. Portraits of actual individuals disappeared. Attempts to convey subtle emotion in subjects’ facial expressions mostly seized. Attempts to portray three-dimensional objects realistically in 2-D seized. There was a clean break in techniques, values, goals. This makes one think that perhaps the teacher-student chain itself was broken and ecclesiastic art started from scratch. This definitely happened in other areas – the writing of history, for example.

      The Yoruba figures whose pictures you posted have blank facial expressions. So the expressiveness that the Greeks strove for 1,500 years earlier isn’t there. But yes, from the looks of them they could well be portraits of individuals. Good for them.

      “…who never lost the ancient art forms and techniques and taught them to Italians…”

      The Renaissance started with a rejection of Byzantine art. For example, the Wikipedia article on Giotto quotes Vasari as saying that he “made a decisive break with the crude traditional Byzantine style, and brought to life the great art of painting as we know it today, introducing the technique of drawing accurately from life…”

  16. “This is incorrect. They did lose the ancient artistic traditions. ”
    ???

    The Byzantine empire being actually the continuation of the eastern Roman empire, and in fact the Byzantine denomination is misleading as they never called themselves other than Romans. Whereas Roman legacy was largely wiped out in the West, it continued to thrive in the East which in fact remained a powerful state for quite a long time. So the terms “lost” or even “decadence” aren’t appropriate in any ways. While what is called Byzantine Art became distinctly different from what we refer to as Greco-Roman art, the divergence took quite a long time to become apparent and especially before the iconoclast crises it’s hard to distinguish the two.

    Much antiquities were kept and looked after, and Constantinople was filled with ancient statues, columns and obelisks. Similarly, ancient skills were kept and built on.
    This is obvious with architecture and mosaic which are commonly seen as sublimated during the period, but painting and sculpture evolved as well. The differences being largely the result of trends already emerging in the late Roman Empire.

    As an illustration, consider the following : the colossal statue of Constantine, the missorium of Theodosus, then the barberini Ivory (this one in the Byzantine era proper)
    http://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/farberas/arth/images/arth212images/early_christian/sculpture/constantine_head.jpg
    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/b7/Missorium_Theodosius_whole.jpg
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Diptych_Barberini_Louvre_OA9063_whole.jpg
    While Graeco-Roman is widely known for its realism and precision, most notably in sculpture, we already see here the tendancy to drift away from realism. However, these works are nonetheless masterpieces of great skill, disproving any “decadence” in the prowess of their creators.

    Most certainly a case must be made, that the kind of realistic sculptures and reliefs that we associate the Ancients with, having been done over and over thousands of times (and as I said still omnipresent in the landscape) what we see here is a change in mood and taste. To venture a comparison, although Picasso was able to create realistic paintings with talent, as shown in his early works, he nonetheless dedicated his life to the style he is best known for.
    It would be preposterous to forget how the Byzantine empire was renowned for its craftmanship and art, the products of which has been coveted all over Europe for nearly a millenium.
    http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/exhibitions/byzantium/image-gallery-exhibition-highlights/gallery-of-key-images-3,12,BZ.html

    Byzantine artists also, sculptors included, continually exported themselves, not only to Byzantine ruled parts of Italy but also across much of europe. And even if there were attempts to root out “images” during religious crises, which is assumed to have increased outflow of artists- they were later rehabilitated and no lasting religious interdiction existed. We aren’t aware of a religious interdiction to realistic sculptures- but probably rather than copying the old works what would have been needed to create anew was the practice of dissection, which was forbidden as well as quite universally taboo. Only dissection allowed the naked realism of Renaissance artists.

    But that Italian renaissance painting is an offshoot from the Byzantine art is undisputed. The Vasari quote, if unegrateful, is a testament to this. In fact, in matter of painting Italy was for centuries merely a studious periphery of the Eastern Romans.
    Byzantine Icone painting is originated with the funerary paintings of graeco-roman Egypt. Having been fortunately preserved by the climate, a quick googling using the word “Fayum” shows how amazing and realistic these were. The link is apparent with a 6th century byzantine icon, kept -not surprisingly- in the Mount Sinai Saint Catherine’s Monastery. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4a/Spas_vsederzhitel_sinay.jpg
    Yes, many Byzantine (mosaics and) paintings are very stylized, but again it’s clearly an intentional choice, not a lack of skill.

    In fact, your dislike for Byzantine art and preference for Renaissance is registered, but I doubt a lot of people actually consider the interior of St Mark basilica, almost entirely Byzantine, graceless. As for comparing Byzantine and Renaissance figuration, the Martorana Church in Palermo, where both styles coexist, provide a very good comparison. (Of course, frescoes and mosaics would always need to be seen in situ to be fully appreciated ) http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%89glise_de_la_Martorana_de_Palerme

    Indeed, having discussed the subject with a Greek, it’s an all time overlooked fact that western Europe as a whole has always lived in the shadow of Byzantium. Europeans didn’t quite “rediscover” ancient ideas, the Roman empire continued and passed the baton- and even this is overlooked since we put much more emphasis on what was conveyed by Arabs, but it’s the historiographic fashion of the day not the relative importance of each that explains it. And it goes further than just mentioning the Byzantine intellectuals fleeing the Turks to Italy : even the papacy is an offshoot of the byzantine pentarchy where the patriarch of Rome wasn’t supposed to have any special prominence other than honorific primacy. And without Papacy, no Christianity and no European civilization to begin with- pretty much all the barbarians rulers were illiterate and so became their subjects; well except for the clergy.

    This is very important for Russia as well as relevant to this thread about China and divergence : the third Rome theme is an essential one and Russia has every reason to cultivate it. Given that Europe still denigrate the Byzantine Empire while it owes it nearly everything and backstabbed it in 1204, this is food for thought regarding Russophobic tendancies : Western nations have no grounds to deny European legitimacy to Russia.
    And regarding China, Russia’s culture and history is intertwined with that of the longest lasting empire in history (330-1453) itself tied to the 1100 year older history of Rome- not a legacy really humbled by China ; )

  17. Philip Owen says:

    The narrative on the Industrial Revolution is generally written by English observers and emphasises some sudden emergence that is different from elsewhere. However, one should note that in South Wales, where the coal/iron/steam version of the IR took place (there is a wool/cotton/factory/machine building version as well) large, export orientated ironworks had been founded by the Cistercian monks from about 1130. In particular, the Margam Abbey part of the Port Talbot iron works was in production by 1130. The same monastic estate was also a large scale producer of wool. German iron and coal companies have similarly ancient ancestry accompanied by considerable technical development.

    Sometime in the 1580′s Queen Elizabeth ordered the construction of a large copper works at Neath, which produced copper plate for protecting ships hulls, making long distance trade speedier and repeatable in the same vessel. The Agrarian Revolution of the 18th Century, aided by global warning from the sunspot cycle, was an important factor in boosting the wealth of the British population and thus the available market for industrial goods. And then came Napoleon, a huge boost to technological development (and wool production, not least for the Russian army). The industrial revolution in Europe was under way well before the days of long distance trade (it made effective long distance trade possible) and well before plantation economies. I don’t dispute the colossal impact of the Americas but the Chinese could have found Australia or done more with South East Asia or Siberia. Chinese loss of leadership was not inevitable. Cultural factors were relevant. For example, Merchants were tolerated by the bureaucrats; they were not encouraged and there was no respect for their private property so corporations could not be formed and very large concentrations of private capital were hard to create according to various “How the West won” books I’ve read. The Chinese undoubtedly had achieved technical perfection in the bronze age technologies of hydrological land management.

  18. Underlying factors:
    1) pursuit/love of science, technology, trade, and exploration
    2) free and open trade
    3) free and open markets
    4) love of life (philanthropy), religion that values greatness in life (opposed to forgoing life for afterlife)
    5) invisible hand of the marketplace
    6) the Olympics
    7) freedom of mobility
    8) large populations
    9) private property
    10) rule of law
    11)….. etc

    And a great comment by user Albo —- After the fall of Constantinople, all those Byzantines/Romans went over to Western Europe. So the necessary and sufficient items to flourishing seem to lie completely in the beliefs/values/behaviors of individuals/society/culture.

    EVERY western civilization course includes Russia!

    And I can’t comprehend for one second why any Russian (that’s you Anatoly) would champion environmental circumstance as a primary reason for prosperity!! Some of the most fabulous advances in science and technology have come out of Saint Petersburg and the Russian Academy of Sciences —– a mosquito infested swamp in the summer and icebox in the winter….

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