Walled Off By Complexity: Did China Stagnate Because Of Its Writing System?

One of the biggest questions in global history is why it was Western Europe that industrialized first, and ended up colonizing most of the rest of the world. As late as 1450, the possibility of such an outcome would have been ridiculed. By almost any metric, China was well in the lead through the medieval period – in technology (compass, paper, ship-building, gunpowder, movable type printing), government (bureaucrats were selected based on meritocratic exams, whereas in Europe professional civil services only began appearing in the 19th century), urbanization, etc.

In my view, most of the common explanations for the “European miracle” are largely self-congratulatory post hoc narratives that aren’t really convincing. Europe had markets, you say? For most of the medieval era, and even later, feudalism was the dominant social structure; the rising nation-states replaced it with mercantilism. Robber barons holed up in their castles charged extortionate rates on merchants passing through their fiefs. Throughout the period, most Chinese were freemen, enjoyed lower taxes, and fewer controls on land sales and industry; there were no internal trade barriers (instead, the government funded large projects such as the Grand Canal to economically unify the territory). China was far closer to the free market economy than Europe! Similar ventures only began to appear in Europe in the 18th century. In ancient regime France, there were internal controls on trade and many bureaucratic posts were up for sale to the highest bidder, a matter of considerable resentment that would contribute to the Revolution. Even the Enlightenment thinkers only dreamed of governing their countries as efficiently as they imagined the Celestial Empire did.

What about China’s stultifying Confucian traditionalism? Again, there was no shortage of reaction in Europe. No colonial empires bringing in revenue from trade and overseas commodities, because the Chinese grounded their fleet in the 1430’s? Please, Spain owned half the western hemisphere, and ended up stagnating despite (or because of) it; meanwhile, inland European regions with no colonial empires to speak of, such as the Ruhr or Silesia, industrialized early. Ravaged by rebellions, nomadic invasions, and repeated Malthusian crises? But Europe also had its fair share of these: the Black Death depressed European populations for nearly three centuries, and constituted a classical subsistence crisis, while some conflicts were also exceedingly devastating, e.g. the Thirty Years’ War that killed about a third of the German population. No good energy sources? China has as many rivers for watermills as Europe, and the Song dynasty produced more coal and pig iron in 1000AD than Europe did in 1800. The Chinese were hobbled by a low national IQ? This controversial theory was advanced in some circles to explain the historical failure of India or the Arab world, but whatever its merits, it surely can’t apply to China. Nor can several specific reasons given for the failures of other civilizations, such as water stress and desertification in the Middle East, or being on the wrong latitude as with Africa, India, and the Americas.

For a long time, I’ve only found two theories to be semi-plausible. First, Jared Diamond’s argument that China’s geography – a flatland of fertile river plains, capable of feeding big armies, with no major peninsulas that could host rival power bases – is naturally suited for unification (in contrast to Europe’s zigzag of mountain ranges and rugged peninsulas coasts). This reduced internal competition, so that the effects of bad policies – such as the occasional banning of private seafaring – reverberated throughout the whole of China, whereas in Europe only one region at a time suffered under Louis XIV’s fiscal depredations or the Spanish Inquisition. But on the other hand, surely this was counterbalanced by the returns to scale and (relative) internal peace enjoyed by a unified China, as opposed to fragmented Europe with its never-ending internecine wars? While IMO the charge of “geographical determinism” is thrown about too wildly nowadays, in this case it may be  justified.

Second, as I said in my post on cliodynamics, the depth of Malthusian collapses that occurred in China were arguably bigger than in Europe, and tended to affect all of China at once (because of its greater internal connectedness). This meant that during these “dark age” periods, there may have been more technological regression in China than in Europe. Nonetheless, both of these theories are speculative and hedged with all manner of caveats. In my view, this question remains wide open.

However, I’m only writing this post because I think I’ve discovered a major, perhaps the major factor, that explains the “great divergence” between Europe and China. In short, it is China’s writing system.

From its origins in Phoenicia, the alphabet spread to Greece and Rome, and formed the building blocks of all future European literary culture. In contrast, China retains a system of hieroglyphs (汉字), inherited from the very earliest days of literacy (imagine using Egyptian hieroglyphs or Linear B today). All its writings are in the form of thousands of distinct symbols, and combinations thereof, expressing ideas. The hanzi may look much cooler than a standard alphabet, but in practice it throws up a host of serious problems.

1. Universal Literacy. It is much harder to attain practical literacy in Chinese, than it is in “normal” languages. A typical West European only has to know 26 or so symbols, and after that – because her language is mostly phonetic – she can transcribe most speech into text that is, at a minimum, legible and understandable. Not so for Chinese, where knowing how a word is pronounced is typically no clue as to how to write it. The PRC’s standards for literacy are recognition of 1,500 characters for rural dwellers and 2,000 characters for urban dwellers, but in fact it is estimated that real fluency requires knowledge at 3,000-4,000. Furthermore, this is passive recognition; writing stuff involves active recall, and is much more difficult still. David Moser’s The Writing on the Wall [DOC] has many amusing anecdotes on this subject, e.g.:

The most astounding example I encountered back in my early days studying Chinese was during a lunch with three graduate students in the Peking University Chinese department.  I had a bad cold that day, and wanted to write a note to a friend to cancel a meeting.  I found that I couldn’t write the character ti 嚔 in the word for “sneeze”, da penti 打喷嚔, and so I asked my three friends for help.  To my amazement, none of the three could successfully retrieve the character ti 嚔.  Three Chinese graduate students at China’s most prestigious university could not write the word for “sneeze” in their own native script!  One simply cannot imagine a similar situation in a phonetic script environment – e.g., three Harvard graduate students unable to write a common word like “sneeze” in the orthography of their native language.

What was even more amazing – and puzzling – was that the Chinese people I dealt with showed almost no concern for this phenomenon.  Most tended to explain away the situation as due to low educational standards, or merely natural everyday memory lapses. “And besides,” they would say to me, “Don’t you sometimes forget how to spell a word in English?”  And I slowly began to realize that part of the problem is that, for most native Chinese, who have not grown up using an alphabetic system of writing, the contrast between the systems is not at all evident – they simply have no basis of comparison.  Such people tend to assume that their difficulties are with the process of writing itself, rather than the particular writing system they are using.

Go, read his essay. And his other essay, Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard. Good, you’re back, and want to know what this has to do with China’s late industrialization. The answer is that, as I’ve argued many times on this blog, literacy rates, and educational human capital in general, is the most important prerequisite and determinant of economic development. The most literate countries in 1800 were also the richest ones in 2000. Thanks to its traditionally high levels of development and meritocratic system for grooming civil servants, China has always been relatively literate, until eclipsed by North Western Europe by 1800; as you can see in the graph below, its somewhat of an outlier. But knowing what we know of the peculiarities of literacy as limited by the very structure of its writing system…

(PS. Note that both Korean uses an alphabet; and so does Japanese, if a very complicated set of two alphabets (hiragana and katakana) with borrowings from Chinese hieroglyphs in the form of kanji. Could this, at least partially, explain why both Japan and Korea were far more successful at industrialization than China?)

One tentative implication is that the literacy rate estimated for historical China would be a fraction of its conventionally estimated percentage because to be able to functionally express the same range and depth of ideas in a hieroglyphic script as a scholar working with an alphabet-based writing system would constitute a much harder undertaking. I daresay that for anyone without a photographic memory, a great deal of time would simply be taken up with laboring over the Kangxi dictionary. This reduces the amount of mental energy that could be spent on more practical matters of original research or innovation.

2. Platonic Worldview. Many theorists have speculated about the role of traditionalism in keeping China back, but one can’t help noticing that such tendencies would logically be encouraged by the limitations of the Chinese writing system. Hieroglyphs originally evolved to keep track of two basic functions: religious ceremonies, trade accounts (e.g. bushels of grain delivered, etc), court historians (mostly formulaic accounts of dynasties, omens, wars, etc). As symbols stand for ideas, and given the simplicity of Chinese grammar, I suspect it is much harder to accurately convey unusual and complex phenomena in the Chinese script. Psychologically, this may have encouraged a Platonic worldview based on perfect forms, and the exaltation of traditional wisdom over the skeptical empirical, which is all antithetical to the scientific method.

3. Small Webs Of Reference. In pre-industrial times, much of what passed for industry and manufacturing was hands-and-eyes type of work, small artisans with apprentices and a few simple machine tools practicing their art in a workshop. China was abreast or ahead of medieval Europe in most of these spheres (barring a few things like eye-pieces and mechanical clocks). They even invented movable type printing well ahead of Europeans, which is truly amazing given how much simpler that system is for alphabet-based scripts. In some respects, Song China was already as economically developed as 18th century Europe. But they never made the leap to mass production and assembly lines; from about 1820, England made a qualitative spring forwards that China would not begin to replicate until the 1950’s.

Ultimately, the reason for this may reside in alphabetic script. Artisinal techniques can be conveyed well enough by word of mouth; the larger projects, such as dams or canals, can be overseen by a few very well-educated bureaucrats with the appropriate symbolic expertise. But once you get into the world of mass production, steamships, advanced metallurgy, chemicals, electricity, etc., then you can’t do without a big reservoir of specialists with a high degree of functional literacy, and a big, shared body of knowledge that these specialists can consult. The Chinese writing system is not conductive to the emergence of the far wider webs of reference, of citation and indexing, that is a prerequisite for an industrial takeoff. As Moser points out, this remains a problem even in the digitized modern age:

Yet even if some technological fix were to be devised to solve the problem of character entry, the non-alphabetic nature of the writing system still results in other serious and long-standing “invisible” problems.  For example, the inclusion of a standard index to books, manuals and reference materials is made orders of magnitude more difficult by the Chinese writing system.  The result is that to this day, the vast majority of non-fiction books published in China do not have an index, or anything like it.  This fact seems incredible to those firmly ensconced in the alphabetic world, for obviously the lack of an index considerably lessens a book’s usefulness.  Removing indexes from Western library books would be like an atomic bomb being dropped into academia.  Yet their lack is a mundane fact of life in China.

… In virtually every informatic context, from library card catalogs to everyday user’s manuals, the relatively cumbersome Chinese writing system exerts a low-level but constant drag force on productivity, and tends to reinforce an undemocratic state of affairs in which only the  educated elite or the doggedly determined make full use of the tools of the information environment.

Now imagine the challenges faced by Chinese scholars of yore, who did not even have the pinyin alphabetization system to help them out. In summary, the main problem of hieroglyphic writing systems is that it puts a mass of structural impediments towards the effective sharing of information that would not otherwise exist in an alphabetic system. This might be as good an explanation of why China reached a technological plateau early, and then largely stagnated for the better part of a millennium, as any other.

(Granted, there were improvements during this period. For instance, there was a huge burst in agricultural productivity during the Qing dynasty, which enabled the Chinese population to remain on par with the European. But this was a matter of traditional experimentation with crop varieties that has been practiced since the dawn of agriculture; an industrial revolution it does not – and cannot – make.)

Many pundits believe Chinese industrial catch-up is unsustainable because of its “traditional” lack of innovation and tendency to retreat into itself and stagnate. However, if this, for now admittedly fragile, theory is accurate, then the prospects for China under 21st century technological conditions look auspicious (for now, we’ll leave aside issues of climate change and Limits to Growth). Automatic translators can instantly look up any characters; likewise, any pinyin can be instantly converted into the appropriate character. Cell phone apps can recognize characters on paper and translate them. In tandem, a limited alphabetization and modern IT have overcome most of the structural difficulties that once stymied Chinese breakthrough into the world of industrialism and hi-tech. Furthermore, the critical languages of the future are those of math and computer science, and in these the Chinese are on a level playing field.

I can only finish these ruminations with a few comments on the big debate surrounding the simplification and/or alphabetization of Chinese. Largely, the latter is far more effective than the former; simplification may, in most (but not all) cases, improve the chances of character memorization, but it doesn’t resolve the core problems of hieroglyphic writing systems. On the other hand, the Chinese characters are a major cultural legacy and losing them would be tragic. As such, it would be best IMO to use pinyin (or Gwoyeu Romatzyh; I wish, LOL!) for practical purposes, but continue compulsory teaching of Traditional and Simplified characters for their historical and literary value.

Anatoly Karlin is a transhumanist interested in psychometrics, life extension, UBI, crypto/network states, X risks, and ushering in the Biosingularity.


Inventor of Idiot’s Limbo, the Katechon Hypothesis, and Elite Human Capital.


Apart from writing booksreviewstravel writing, and sundry blogging, I Tweet at @powerfultakes and run a Substack newsletter.


  1. georgesdelatour says

    I think you’re on to something.

    I was listening to an iTunes University series by the philosopher John Searle, who’s been lecturing in China. Just as an aside, he said (approximately) … “Will Mandarin become the world’s first language of international communication? They’ll need to get an alphabet first.”

    • Hieroglyphic system is very different from alphabetic system.
      In hieroglyphic script, a character is usually means a phrase just like ancient chinese. To cut done the uncertain of chinese characters, it has change the one character to two characters as a words. “否”, in pinyin is “fou” means no or negative in english has changed to “不是”/“不” which in pinyin are “bushi” and “bu”. The pronunciation has already changed without changing in the meaning and increase the efficiency of understanding.
      It is very hard to learn at first but after you learn plenty of characters, it is much easier than alphabetic system. Because it do not have as much grammar as alphabetic system. For example, when a action took place , the “take” need to change to “took” to shows that it is in the past time. But it is very simple in chinese. It just need to add a time without changing anything, etc. Hence, it is easier to combinate a sentence. Usually chinese students need 4000-5000 are enough to read almost all the chinese books(except the ancient chinese which the characters have different meanings). But students in alphabetic system need at least 8000 words for sure(but basic english just need 26 character LOL).
      I can’t say chinese is more efficiency than english not just in mechanic side but when you search some translations between chinese and english you will find the chinese article usually shorter than english one.
      And also I found that many chinese philosophical thinking just under the chinese characters which is amazing. It is easy to find this in the common conversation.

      I agree that the chinese writing may be a reason to its industrialisation but in fact it because the philosophical thinking under the writing. For example to be filial is very important in chinese culture. This may cause children do not do what their parents not like to especally a sentence I remember: Children do not travel far away when parents are alive. Because they have the responsibility to take care of their parents. Is that might explain why ancient chinese not travel the whole world in ancient when they already have the great seamanship during Song dynasty(960-1279A.D) and also Ming Dynasty(1368-1644A.D). The size of Zhenhe’s ship in 1405 A.D is about 130 meter long and 50 meter wide. The fleet have over 200 ship 27,000 staff and with over 1,000 tonnes of displacement. Sadly, after Zhenhe no one traveled again hence many of technology used to build these great wooden ship had lost.

      • Most Chinese words are not made of one character but 2 or more. So if you know those 4000/5000 characters you can “read” all words but you don’t knowing the mean of all words nor can you pronounce all words. Also the fact that you claim that Chinese grammar is easier is not due to using characters but is something that is innate to the Chinese spoken languages .

  2. Scowspi says

    Very interesting thesis, though I am agnostic about it. Couple of things that caught my eye:

    1. Given a unified educational system, why are urbanites expected to know more characters than rural people?

    2. I think you overestimate the weight of the syllabic alphabets (hiragana & katakana) in Japanese. The former is mainly used to show grammatical relations between words; the latter is used exclusively for words of foreign origin. A normally-written Japanese text is almost all kanji. A person cannot be considered literate in Japanese without knowing 1000s of kanji, just as in Chinese.

    The Japanese in theory *could* write their whole language using only hiragana, but for some reason (probably cultural), they don’t. In short, I don’t think Japan is a counterexample that lends weight to your thesis.

  3. Thank you for this writeup AK, very interesting. In case you haven’t read it yet, I reccomend you have a look at the book “The wealth and poverty of nations” by David S. Landes.

    He explores the question why Europe came out ahead from a different perspective than J. Diamond. He also views the lack of an alphabet as one of the major reasons that held China back. Though he also thinks that the European invention of accurate mechanical clocks and eyeglasses are a major factor as well. Eyeglasses increase the length of the productive work-life of trained specialists, and accurate clocks allow for the exact measurement of a production facility’s productivity.

    • Yes, I’m familiar with Landes’ work. I think he is a good example of the self-congratulatory post hoc narratives I criticize at the beginning of the post:
      (1) Mechanical clocks and eye-glasses are no doubt very useful (note that I specifically mentioned them in this post), but they don’t an industrial revolution make. Eye-glasses are of help mainly to pre-industrial artisans, and while mechanical clocks are more symbolic of the regimented industrial spirit, sundials and water clocks (both of which China had) can fulfill the same functions at a fraction of the cost. In the crucial technologies actually relevant to an industrial takeoff – iron-working and movable type printing – China was in the lead well before Europe.
      (2) The core of Landes’ arguments are of the type that there was no economic incentive to self-improvement, weak property rights, autocracy, etc. But this ignores that almost all of the exact same factors were present in Europe in this period, and frequently to an even greater degree. In fact, on several of them China was substantially better and more humane.

      • Doug M. says

        Landes is indeed pretty crap.

        Also, he gets a lot of his facts wrong. Mechanical clocks, for instance, were widespread throughout China from the 17th century onwards. One of the scenes in “The Dream of the Red Chamber” — a classic Chinese novel from c. 1760, depicting society around 1730 — has Grandmother Liu from the countryside being frightened by the new chiming pendulum clock. And the subtext is not “whoa, clocks are scary” but “ho ho, Grandmother Liu is tough and feisty, but her life in a rural village has left her a bit backwards!”

        Doug M.

  4. Yalensis says

    @Anatoly, I agree with your thesis, it is logical and just seems like common sense to me. A civilization that is saddled with a hieroglyphic script is the equivalent of a long-distance runner having to wear a ball and chain on each ankle, while racing against runners not similarly encumbered. Even the ancient Egyptians (who were very big on “tradition”) eventually figured out how to convert their initially hieroglyphic script into a phonemic alphabet, which was one of the keys that led to the deciphering of the Rosetta Stone; after this momentous event scholars could go back and read ancient Egyptian texts, that they used to think were saying something like “bird-pond-sun” etc., and it was actually saying “R-A-M..” as in “I, Ramses, decree that… etc. etc” [Just a made-up example: I don’t read ancient Egyptian.]
    Anyhow, I have my own theory for why an insanely clever people like the Chinese didn’t wise up and buy themselves an alphabet. There would have come a point in their history when they KNEW about phonemes and alphabets, but decided not to do anything about it. Maybe just a love of “tradition?” Dubious. My theory is: class bias and the territoriality of the civil service caste protecting their knowledge for the purposes of job security. I base my theory on the following:
    I had a linguistics professor who was an expert in Sanskrit and taught the introductory graduate class in Indo-European comparative morphology. Anyhow, he was lecturing us about the ancient Sanskrit scholar Panini, now this guy Panini ran with a crowd that was totally aware of the concept of phonemes, these were the best linguists of their time, and they were entrusted with inventing an alphabet for writing down the Rig Veda (which was their culture’s oral religious epic, constantly growing, and had gotten too big for even the best bards to memorize the whole thing). So, anyhow, Panini and his friends had every mental tool available to invent the best phonemic alphabet ever and make Sanskrit world leader among all languages. So what did they do? These geniuses invented a crappy, very difficult to learn SYLLABIC alphabet, with lots of little ornaments and strokes.
    I asked my prof, “Why would they do such a thing?” and he replied that these Sanskrit scholars did not WANT for the common man to learn to read. They wanted the alphabet to be so difficult that only a dedicated class of scholars would have the time to learn to read and write. I wonder if this kind of elitist mentality was behind China’s stagnation as well? In contrast, Byzantine linguists St. Cyrill and Methodius set out to create an alphabet for the Slavic people that would be so easy to learn that even hard-working Slavic peasants would be able to learn to read. So, who is the superior civilization? The one that invents or discovers great things and then tries to hide them from the commoners? Or the one that seeks to spread whatever knowledge they have?

  5. Howard Roark says

    Perhaps there are better translators than Google Translate, but I’ve found it to be nearly worthless when using it for Chinese. I use it all the time to figure out what my Chinese friends are saying on Facebook, and Google usually provides me with a pretty lousy translation. On the face of it, it would seem that it would be easier to translate symbols, but I haven’t seen it in reality. If someone has a better way, I’m all ears, but in the meantime, I stand a bit skeptical that Chinese is easy to translate via machine translation.

    • The translation need not necessarily be into another language; it can also be a simple conversion into pinyin, e.g. a Chinese guy reading a complex text, instead of having to go through the hard and cumbersome work of looking up the rogue character in a dictionary, can instead instantly Latinize it by pointing a cell phone camera over it and thus make it recognizable (since pinyin is phonetic). Such solutions are becoming increasingly feasible.

      I agree that Google translations of Chinese texts are very bad. This is surprising since the grammar is remarkable simple, but then again, I suppose this may work to machine translation’s disadvantage, because simplicity implies a loss in precision and hence a greater reliance on context, which is far beyond today’s AI.

  6. Great post. No doubt there are multiple reasons for China’s later industrialism, but in terms of its script – Chinese script represent concrete ideas and objects, whereas a phonetic alphabet is pure abstraction. The European mind was probably therefore better at dealing with and recording abstract concepts. The downside of this is that Europeans take words for reality, hence always getting hung-up on meanings – what is the true meaning of christianity, sovereignty (took a long time to work this out), capitalism, socialism etc. Hence the Chinese don’t seem worried by the contradiction of a capitalist economic system overseen by the Communist Party, nothing like that would ever fly in America. Also the Chinese script is a sort of lingua franca whereby those speaking different dialects can still communicate (leading to a common identity) whereas Europeans needed to learn multiple languages to communicate long distance, eg. Latin, French, English. All in all, with future conflicts and downturns I wouldn’t be surprised if in 500 years Americans no longer recognise themselves as American or British as British, but I expect Chinese will recognise themselves as such in 1000 years.

  7. “One of the biggest questions in global history is why it was Western Europe that industrialized first…”

    Surprise, surprise, I’m going to argue for biological explanations. And by the way, European thought has actually turned in the scientific direction twice – in ancient Greece and in Renaissance Italy. On its own this has happened in Asia zero times.

    I remember reading about a Roman-era description of Seres, as China was then known in the West, in which it was named as the most law-abiding, the most disciplined country on Earth. If a stereotype persists for 2,000 years, perhaps there’s more than just culture going on here. How can a set of habits persist for millenia without being tethered to something less fickle, more substantial than learned habit?

    I also remember reading about an experiment in which newborns were put on their stomachs by researchers. European newborns were more likely to turn themselves over, Asian newborns more likely to accept their fate, to stay in the uncomfortable position into which an adult had put them. Food for thought.

    A quote from “The 10,000 Year Explosion” by Cochran and Harpending about the the consequences of the introduction of agriculture:

    “Since the elites were in a very real sense raising peasants, just as peasants raised cows, there must have been a tendency for them to cull individuals who were more aggressive than average, which over time would have changed the frequencies of those allelles that induced such aggressiveness. This would have been particularly likely in strong, long-lived societies, because situations in which rebels often won might have favored aggressive personalities….”

    “We know of a gene that may play a part in this story: the 7R (for 7-repeat) allelle of the DRD4 (dopamine receptor D4) gene. It is associated with Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a behavioral syndrome best characterized by actions that annoy elementary school teachers: restless-impulsive behavior, inattention, distractability, and the like.

    The polymorphism is found at varying but significant levels in many parts of the world, but is almost totally absent from East Asia. Interestingly, allelles derived from the 7R allelle are fairly common in China, even though the 7R allelles themselves are extremely rare there. It is possible that individuals bearing these allelles were selected against because of cultural patterns in China. The Japanese say that the nail that sticks out is hammered down, but in China it may have been pulled out and thrown away.”

    Obviously, agriculture would act to tame everybody who practices it. But one would expect some variation in this effect. The taming would have gone further in some places than in others.

    Think of the typical Asian attitude to one’s teacher. Martial arts, Go, paper-making, philosophy – the area doesn’t matter. One can cite Asian filial piety vs. the stereotypical Western rebellious teenager here too. How can anything new happen if no one breaks with the past, if no one ever rebels? Of course rebelliousness only produces fruit when paired with brains. Rebelliousness without brains is far worse than the East Asian combo.

    “…the effects of bad policies – such as the occasional banning of private seafaring – reverberated throughout the whole of China…”

    They never reverberated in Japan. And even China was divided for centuries at a time.

    “…whereas in Europe only one region at a time suffered under Louis XIV’s fiscal depredations or the Spanish Inquisition.”

    Like most, you seem to assume that the Inquisition was detrimental to civilization. I, however, think that Western Civ. is now in decline partly because movements like the Inquisition failed. Once secularism appears on the scene, it starts exerting a negative selection pressure. The smart are uniquely vulnerable to it. It takes brains to imagine a world that’s moved by cold, impersonal forces.

    Though only a tiny minority of fundamentalist theists today are smart, they do have a lot of kids. They’re the only smart people in the world today who’re breeding above replacement level, who aren’t disappearing in front of our eyes.

    In general, how can civilization ever avoid the dysgenic trap? By killing the atheist idea whenever it appears, by whatever means necessary. By treating it like smallpox. By being ruthless with it. In this view movements like the Inquisition were on the side of civilization.

    “This meant that during these “dark age” periods, there may have been more technological regression in China than in Europe.”

    Oh, I don’t believe this at all. China never experienced anything like the post-Roman European cultural and technological decline.

    “The hanzi may look much cooler than a standard alphabet…”

    They do. I agree with you on that. Moreover, traditional characters look better than simplified ones.

    “Now imagine the challenges faced by Chinese scholars of yore…”

    OK. But European scholars of yore had to work in a dead language. All science was done in Latin, and for good reason. If Newton wrote his Principia in English, his continental colleagues wouldn’t have read it. OK, it could have been translated into a dozen languages, but that would have taken time. And what if he wanted to correspond with Leibniz, for example, personally? Since intellectuals are generally interested in each other’s thoughts, they always have a need for a common language, and for most of the history of Western Civ. this common language was in fact a dead one. So if you wanted to participate in the continent’s intellectual life, you first had to learn a dead language really well. This is harder than learning a living one because you can’t just move somewhere else and practice immersion for a couple of years. Once you learned Latin, you learned the law or medicine or natural philosophy in it. Was that as difficult as learning Chinese characters? No. But the gap in difficulty, the difference in the height of barriers to learning, wasn’t as large as some probably imagine.

    “Note that both Korean uses an alphabet.”

    From what I understand, until a few decades ago the Koreans mixed Chinese characters with their syllabary similarly to how the Japanese do it.

    “As symbols stand for ideas, and given the simplicity of Chinese grammar, I suspect it is much harder to accurately convey unusual and complex phenomena in the Chinese script.”

    A twist on Sapir-Whorf. I’m skeptical of it. Language is a tool of the mind, not the other way around. People constantly search for the right words to express their initially wordless feelings, inklings or imaginings. If we don’t find any, we coin them. They could have always coined characters and phrases for anything they wanted. Even European intellectuals’ long reliance on a dead language didn’t stop them from coming up with new concepts and coinages.

    “The Chinese writing system is not conductive to the emergence of the far wider webs of reference, of citation and indexing, that is a prerequisite for an industrial takeoff.”

    When did European non-fiction books start having indices in the back? Does that really go back centuries? I doubt it, though I don’t know for sure. And science is moved forward through articles in scholarly magazines, not through books. These articles generally aren’t so large as to be able to profit from indices in the back. By the way, the Chinese have been compiling huge encyclopedias for 2,000 years. Much bigger than anything in the West.


    “The Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era (simplified Chinese: 太平御览; traditional Chinese: 太平御覽; pinyin: Tàipíng Yùlǎn) is a massive encyclopedia compiled by a number of officers commissioned by the imperial court of the Song Dynasty with the lead editor being Li Fang from 977 to 983 during the era of Taiping Xingguo. It is divided into 1,000 volumes and 55 sections, which consisted of about 4.7 millions words (or, Chinese characters). It included citations from about 2,579 different kinds of documents spanning from books, poetry, ode, proverbs, steles to miscellaneous works.”

    I’d call that a web of reference.

    “Many pundits believe Chinese industrial catch-up is unsustainable because of its “traditional” lack of innovation and tendency to retreat into itself and stagnate.”

    Depends on how you define sustainability. They’re unlikely to ever move science and technology forward in a big way, but they are very capable of using already existing technology. They could stay at this level in perpetuity.

    “simplification may, in most (but not all) cases, improve the chances of character memorization…”

    As you’re probably aware, simplification has has broken the mnemonically-valuable rebus logic of some characters. “Comes from this semantic category, sounds like this simpler character” – that’s screwed up when one of the elements gets simplified out of recognition.

    I’ve been told by a Chinese guy years ago that total Vietnamese-type alphabetization is out of the question in China because of nationalism. It would seem like a complete betrayal to most there, so there’s no chance of it happening.

    • Latin isn’t a dead language but a dead dialect in the Latin language family. Though at that time the Church kept it much alive so i wouldn’t even call it dead back then. Also most people mother tong wasn’t German or French but a German or French dialect and the difference between the proverbial French dialect and standard French or Latin isn’t that large

      • Yes, but to German, Dutch, English, Scottish scholars Latin was very, very foreign. Kepler, Huygens, Euler, Gauss, Newton, Spinoza, etc. all had to write in Latin.

        • It would have been the same if they would have chosen French as the lingua franca. It is also not very foreign as almost all the “difficult” words in German, Dutch, English and Scottish are Latin (or Greek) and it was the language of the Church.

          ps. Spinoza was a Portuguese Jew so it would surprise me if he spoke Portuguese and as such Latin isn’t very very foreign for him

  8. One more thing:

    As you mentioned in your post, writing in the western half of Eurasia started out in the same hieroglyphic way as in China. But eventually someone thought “screw it, I know a better way”, and came up with the alphabet. Mesopotamia and the Levant started out hieroglyphic, but then switched. An already-existing class of scribes would have resisted this change. A difficult skill possessed by a few would have commanded higher wages than a simple skill possessed by many. And yet the change did eventually occur.

    But not in China. The Chinese must have been aware of the existence of alphabets abroad for at least 2,000 years. There are records of their contacts with Rome. Buddhist scriptures, written in an alphabet, were translated into Chinese almost 2,000 years ago too. And yet tradition prevailed.

    I’m guessing this was partly due to nationalism, but partly to innate conservatism.

    • Mesopotamia and the Levant switched in situations where each state (read large village) had their own king and writing system. The word class would be an exaggeration in this case because all the scribes in the state wouldn’t fill a class

      • Doug M. says

        Europe went directly from having no written language to using alphabets imported or copied from the Levant. But in the old civilizational cores of the Middle East and Egypt, it took centuries — and usually waves of invasion, accompanied by massive replacement of elites — to wear down the hieroglyphic systems and replace them with alphabets. In the case of Egypt, hieroglyphs still dominated until the Hellenistic period, and were still hanging on well into late Roman times.

        So, the Chinese don’t seem too unusual in this regard. Nobody likes giving up their writing system.

        Doug M.

        • Yalensis says

          @doug: That’s a good point, too. (You’re full of good points!) By the time Europe got around to borrowing alphabets, the concept and technology had already been perfected by others. If you’re the first to invent something, then you’re stuck forever with the prototype, bugs and all. You’re better off waiting for your neighbors to invent and improve on something, then “borrow” it once it’s been perfected. Same reason I’m holding off on buying an iPhone, I’m waiting for a better version ! 🙂

  9. Tetsuya Sellers says

    I find here someone wrote an insanely long text, so I will write an insanely short one!
    i’d like to continue Yalensis’s thought by saying:
    1. The process of stagnation also happens in industrialism. Britain invented the Bessemer process, a giant machine for making steel, but this machine was taken up by the Germans and the Americans. The Americans invented the computer and the internet but these technologies are put to use far better in the middle East and East Asia (Egyptians using facebook to organize their protests.)
    2. Most legal, scholarly, and financial documents today also seem like (hyrogliphics?) creating a general distrust of all those institutions in the Western countries, as for exampple their monopolization by an oligarchic elite, as one would expect in the later stages of a civilization such as what we are in currently.

    • Yalensis says

      @Tetsuya: Thank you for continuing my thought! I apologize if my own comments sometimes get too wordy, but this is fascinating discussion. I still don’t feel like anyone has come up with a satisfying theory why Chinese have resisted alphabetization so long (Glossy’s theory of a genetic cause is interesting, but I tend to be dubious about genetic theories, given how genetically homogeneous we homo sapiens actually are). Chinese resistance to what is obviously a superior linguistic technology is a mystery, especially given that they had Communist revolution in 20th century, adopted many Western ideas at that time (like Marxism), and re-crafted their whole governmental apparatus to look like Soviet Russia. Normally an upheaval of this proportion would be the perfect time for new rulers to change all the other things that need changing (as British say “in for a penny, in for a pound”). For example, Russian Revolution switching from Julian to Gregorian calendar and reforming Cyrillic orthography, etc. Communist Party under Mao would have had all the power and authority they needed to force through change, and Chinese population would have obediently accepted the new writing system. But they didn’t do it, and an opportunity was lost.

      • Would Mao have been able to read in the new system? I think that this is enough of an explanation why they didn’t do it.

        • Yalensis says

          It’s as good an explanation as any, I suppose! It takes true vision (as well as power) to initiate great reforms.

  10. Tetsuya Sellers says

    It was Glossy who wrote that insane post, the first half of it was merely a intelectual speculation! The second half of the first post and his second post are better, where he frankly responds to Carland’s post. Yes, Glossy, societies tend to become conservative in general as they decline.

  11. Tetsuya Sellers says

    Hey, Just had to post this. Found a website describing languages and sirnames. it indicates Chinese as a primitive language because it is straightfoward in its meannings.


    • Yalensis says

      @Tetsuya: Thanks for interesting link. I read it, and I am not familiar with the writer LJ Hammond, but this chapter is very solid and technically correct, so I am guessing s/he is a professional linguist. One tiny thing I would quibble with is their use of the word “primitive”, instead of “analytic”. Also, Chinese probably did not achieve her beautiful “analytical” state overnight: Like all ancient languages it went through many metamorphoses over time. [See John McWhorter, The Power of Babel – I know I keep citing this same scholar, but his books are really good.] For example, most morphologists believe that the Chinese “tonal” system evolved due to change of syllabic structure from C-V-C to C-V. With the loss of final consonant in each syllable (opposite of what happened in Slavic languages), the Chinese language was forced to use up or down musical tones to indicate what the missing consonant used to be, otherwise too many words became homonyms. I don’t know Chinese, but if it is as simple/primitive as this writer says, then all the more reason the Chinese should invent a phonemic alphabet; then everyone in the world can learn their language and start using it as the new global lingua franca, instead of English.

  12. Doug M. says

    Hey, we have a racist. Oh, sorry — a biological determinist, totally different thing don’t you know.

    — Anatoly, I don’t think your thesis is obviously stupid, but it’s probably not right either. This is some pretty well trodden ground. Couple things.

    One, Landes is junk, and nobody takes Diamond and geographical determinism very seriously as an answer. If you want a good, interesting read on this topic, let me recommend Kenneth Pomeranz’s _The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World_. It’s not the last word by any means, but it presents most of the major arguments in a very clear and accessible way.

    Two, written Japanese is not actually simpler than written Chinese. Japanese uses a mixture of two alphabets — hiragana and katakana — AND a syllabic system, the hanji. Very broadly speaking, the alphabets are used for words that are inflected or otherwise change their form, while the hanji are used for words that don’t. If you read a book or a newspaper, more than half the characters are hanji. And there are around 3,000 hanji in regular use. So, I think your argument hits a stone there.

    Three, Platonic worldview — I’m not even sure what this means. But I’ll note that a whole range of societies all across Eurasia, from Mali and Songhay in Africa to the Burmese and Thais in southeast Asia, used alphabets. A claim that alphabets helped Europeans be “Platonic” needs to explain why it didn’t have the same effect on societies as diverse as Achamaenid Persians, Oromo Ethiopians and 18th century Mughals.

    Three sub (a), I note in passing that up until 1700 or so, Chinese mathematics were just as advanced as European — not as good in geometry, quite a bit better in algebra. They developed stuff like complex polynomians and infinite series all on their own. So, I’m not seeing a lack of abstraction.

    Four, you can’t really have a meaningful discussion about Chinese history without noting the effects of China’s interactions with the steppe nomads. Russians like to whine about how their history got derailed by the Mongols. Well, the Mongols killed off nearly half the population of China, and then ruled the rest as a combination whorehouse, theme park and game preserve for the next hundred-odd years. China didn’t recover the income levels seen under the 12th century Song until well into the Ming, sometime in the 15th or early 16th century. And, hey, then came the Manchu.

    Let’s pause to imagine European history if the Mongols had conquered everything all the way west to the English Channel c. 1200, leaving pyramids of skulls outside the burning ruins of cities and killing off half the population… and then, a few centuries later, the Ottomans had come in and conquered it all over again after two generations of extremely violent and bloody war. Would Europe still have had a Scientific and Industrial Revolution?

    Five, energy. You mention the old chestnut about Song coal and iron production. Correct about iron, but very misleading about coal. The Song were exploiting a handful of small surface deposits — most notably, in northern Jiangsu, near the Grand Canal. These were abandoned under the Yuan, rediscovered by the Ming, abandoned again after the Ming-Manchu transition, then worked to exhaustion by the middle and late Manchu. Premodern China’s per capita coal use never recovered its Song-era peak, and by the late 1700s coal use was declining in absolute terms as well.

    Why? Because they had only that handful of small surface deposits. Once they were exhausted, China had no easy-to-reach coal deposits. China has plenty of coal, yes… but the best beds were not accessible to premodern Chinese. They were either in deserts, or far inland out of reach of water transport, or on the wrong side of inconvenient mountain ranges, or deep underground. Basically, China had a chicken-and-egg problem: they couldn’t get their coal out without railroads, which they couldn’t build without coal. And without coal, it’s really quite difficult to start an Industrial Revolution.

    By way of comparison, Europe was blessed with some of the best, most accessible deposits of coal on the planet. In particular, Britain was overflowing with the stuff, much of it easily accessible by water. If this had not been the case, it’s very hard to see how Britain would have managed an Industrial Revolution. (If this topic interests you, let me recommend _Unmaking the West_, by Philip Tetlock, Richard Ned Lebow, and Geoffrey Parker (2004).)

    So, interesting idea — but no, very probably not.

    Doug M.

    • “Japanese uses a mixture of two alphabets — hiragana and katakana — AND a syllabic system, the hanji.”

      Actually it’s the hiragana and the katakana that are syllabic. They represent syllables. The kanji are logographic instead. They represent semantic units. Also, when Chinese characters are used to write Chinese, we sometimes call them hanzi in English. When they’re used to write Japanese, we call them kanji. Where did you get the word hanji? Did you just mash two half-remembered, poorly-understood concepts together? If you don’t know much about a subject, why talk about it?

      “If you read a book or a newspaper, more than half the characters are hanji.”

      Hilarious. Most of the graphemes you see in Japanese texts are not Chinese characters (kanji), but instead belong to the Japanese syllabaries (hiragana and katakana).

      • Doug M. says

        One, you’re right — the kanji are representative, not syllabic.

        Two, yeah, I misspoke. I got “hanji” from writing too fast and crosswiring with _hanzi_, which is the Japanese word for Chinese characters.

        And three, no — most common Japanese nouns are represented by kanji. You simply cannot read Japanese without them.

        Doug M.

        • Initially you wrote “If you read a book or a newspaper, more than half the characters are hanji.”

          Obviously, you didn’t mean “character” to denote “kanji” here. Because that would be pure tautology – all characters are characters and all kanji are kanji.

          Intead, you seem to have meant “character” to denote any grapheme one sees in a Japanese text, anything that stands alone and is separated by some blank space. Well, most of THOSE aren’t kanji. Most of THOSE come from the syllabaries. So you were wrong on that point. Anyone who knows anything about Japanese knows that you were wrong on it.

          But when you were corrected, you didn’t admit that you were wrong. For some reason you simultaneously admitted that you were wrong on two other points. Why? If you’re going to be stubborn, go all the way.

          • I wrote that quickly, and at the end of the day. Frankly, I’m a bit embarrassed to have made a couple of stupid errors.

            So: if you read a Japanese text, a lot of the characters will be syllabic. A majority? I don’t know. It’s been over ten years since I spoke any Japanese, and I never got very far at all with reading it.

            That said, I *do* know that the majority of words in a Japanese text are going to be kanji. I know because I got as far as recognizing the syllabic characters — and realizing that they wouldn’t get me very far. I’d painfully sound out a word, maybe two — and then, bam, kanji. A sentence like “the old dog barks backwards without getting up” would become “the old ## && backwards %% getting up.”

            So “more than half the characters are kanji” may not be true; I’m sincerely unsure now. But more than half the /words/ are going to be kanji; in a typical text, kanji cover most of the nouns and over half the adjectives.

            To give a specific example, a friend of mine was fond of reciting famous first lines in Japanese. I remember “We were in the desert just outside of Barstow when the drugs began to take hold” had a particularly pleasant and musical sound, and it consisted of thirteen words exactly. Counting on my fingers, I think seven of those would probably be kanji — but the non-kanji ones would consist of one, two, or even three graphemes. So, 7-6 if you’re counting words, but something like 7-12 counting symbols.

            Doug M.

            • I read Chinese at an intermediate level, though I don’t speak it. I haven’t studied Japanese, but whenever I chance to look at a Japanese text, I do recognize the kanji. I know what pretty much every one of them means. I recognize the syllabic signs as being syllabic by their very characteristic style and by their visual simplicity (relative to the kanji), but that’s it. I don’t know which syllabic sign represents which syllable.

              It has always seemed to me that there were more syllabic signs than kanji in the typical Japanese text. I’m pretty sure that a kanji’s pronunciation can contain more than one syllable. This runs counter to Chinese practice where all characters have monosyllabic pronunciations. So it could well be that a majority of the syllables of spoken Japanese are represented by kanji in writing. But when I see a Japanese text, I do see more syllabic signs than Kanji, yes. I just looked at a few Japanese Wikipedia pages, counted a little, and that confirmed my impression.

              I also just tried Googling for statistics. I hope I don’t screw up my HTML tags in what follows. First, this:

              “On average, 55% of Japanese text is Hiragana, 35% Kanji, and 10% Katakana. Arabic numerals and Roman letters are also present in Japanese text.”

              On page 17 of this PDF we see this:

              For an average writing sample, one normally finds 60% Hiragana, 10% Katakana, and 30% Kanji.
              Actual percentages depend upon the nature of the text

              • Thanks for letting me know of the commenting system problem. I’ve let through your original post and called Akismet a bad boy.

              • Yalensis says

                Syllabic writing systems may have been an improvement over hieroglyphic, but they are no treat either. Hebrew and Arabic alphabets are syllabic, no? And unnecessarily complex and difficult to learn, I might add. I mentioned in earlier comment about 6th-century grammarians Panini and his friends, who were commissioned to invent alphabet for Sanskrit language. What they came up with was an overly complex and difficult-to-learn SYLLABIC alphabet. The fact that they knew better and could have invented a PHONEMIC alphabet is proved by the fact that they then proceeded to write down a complete scientific analysis of Sanskrit phonology and morpohology, using this same crappy alphabet that they themselves created (but didn’t want the common man to be able to learn).

            • Yalensis says

              Sorry, egregious typo in my previous comment: Sanskrit grammarian Panini was 4th century BC.

              • Sankrit did not use syllabic script but used the the brahmi script which is abguida.A well organized system with vowels(vowels marked with diacritics)and consonants clearly divided.And panini was not asked to devise that script .Where did you get that from give some some reliable references.
                sources:brahmi script—google,wiki

        • I’m glad Glossy corrected you…I was going to but shied away because of my ineptness to get in any kind of a tête-à-tête with you. After reading (with much interest) the overall subject matter leaves me in the amateur section of the peanut gallery so I’ll be content with just reading for the meanwhile.
          Yes, kanji is correct…I never heard of hanji while living in Okinawa.
          Not that it matters here, but I learned to write my name using hiragana and katakana among other short phrases. My personal opinion about learning Japanese is that it is very easy to pick up the spoken word while the writtten word is a whole new ball game. The basic sounds of ah, ka, sa, na, and a few others are mastered quite easily compared to the sing-song utterences of Chinese (Taiwan) which I gave up on. German was also difficult for me but that’s another story.

    • An Onymous says

      Doug, you bring up lots of good points. It was surprising to see the article didn’t mention the Great Wall or the reasons the Chinese had to build it, the Opium Wars the UK was conducting in China, the natural constraints, etc…

      If someone says that one single reason is solely responsible for a particular event then they’re likely trying to sell you something.

    • A very informative post, and sorry it took me so long to notice it. You certainly raise a lot of convincing arguments why the writing system is unlikely to have been the major cause of the divergence.

      Thanks for reminding me about The Great Divergence. I’ve heard good things about it and it’s stuff I’m interested, but haven’t read it to date. I’ll do so.

  13. Doug M. says

    Finally, as to small webs of reference… dude. You have hold of an important idea, yes, but you’ve grabbed it by the wrong end.

    The British Industrial Revolution was nothing *but* small webs of reference. Basically, 18th century Britain was so small that everybody who mattered knew everyone else. The scientific, industrial and technological elites all went to the same handful of schools, subscribed to the same journals, corresponded with each other, and were often related by blood or marriage. The Industrial Revolution was built by maybe ten or fifteen thousand people — inventors, investors, managers and engineers — over two generations. And most of them were concentrated in a handful of locations around the British Isles: the Scottish Lowlands, the Midlands, and London.

    There’s a huge body of scholarship on this, BTW. The 18th century was a golden age for diaries and lettters, so in many cases we can actually track these interactions day-by-day.

    The Scientific Revolution was in some respects even worse — geographically more widespread, all over Western Europe, but involving even fewer people. You could probably have delayed it for a generation, maybe two, with a single well placed bomb in the Royal Society c. 1670. Newton, Hooke, Boyle, Wren, Huygens, Mercator, Flamsteed, Halley, maybe Leibniz if he was in town… boom.

    Don’t confuse the /birth/ of the Industrial Revolution with its subsequent /spread/ across Western and Central Europe, and then a bit later to the US. Two totally different things. The latter did indeed require scaling up of network size. But the former did not; it was small networks, personal contacts, friend-of-a-friend all the way.

    Doug M.

    • Yalensis says

      @doug: You make many good points, including importance of coal to the industrial revolution. As counter-example, though: Native American civilizations like Aztecs and Incas, they had central government and achieved some remarkable things, but they didn’t pull off any industrial revolution, and didn’t they live in coal-rich parts of the American continent?
      “Russians like to whine about how their history got derailed by the Mongols…” Dude! Not all Russians whine (although it sometimes might seem that way…) Only the liberasti whine about the Mongols. But then, they also whine about how the accursed Bolsheviks derailed their precious history. In their narrow view, anything that didn’t lead directly to modern England was a catastrophic derailing.

  14. Doug M. says

    Er… the Aztecs DID use coal. A little. It was a luxury good, apparently used as much for decoration (polished lignite) as for heating. (In fact, last time I looked there was some debate over whether they used it for heating at all; central Mexico was still pretty forested back then, so charcoal would have been cheaper and easier. Dunno if a conclusion has been reached.)

    Anyway: Native American civilizations didn’t have wheat, rice, horses, sheep, ironworking, mathematics beyond algebra, or the printing press. Very roughly speaking, they were at a technological level equivalent to the urban cores of the Old World around 3000 BC. So they couldn’t have done much with coal, other than burn it for heat, even if they’d had the mining techniques to get it out and the transport technologies to move large quantities of it around — which they didn’t.

    By way of comparison, the Song Chinese made heavy use of coal for large-scale iron foundries. In fact, they needed so much concentrated energy that they invented coking furnaces and coke.

    Doug M.

  15. Beckwith thinks the Chinese may have been exposed to the idea of writing from Steppe nomads the prevalent belief is that China developed writing on its own…. Since the oracle bones belonging to the Shang dynasty were discovered it is no longer doubted by sinologists that Chinese writing is an autochthonous and very ancient invention of the Chinese…. .. The legend developed that a scribe of the invented writing after noticing bird tracks.

  16. Yalensis says

    No one has responded yet to a very good point made by both @scowspi and @doug regarding Japanese writing being a counter-example to the thesis that Chinese writing system kept Chinese civilization backwards. Apparently (this came as news to me), Japanese writing is just as cumbersome as Chinese, and yet the Japanese had an industrial revolution and became a super-advanced civilization. True, their nation has stagnated a bit in the past decade or so, but nobody can take away from them what they accomplished in automotive industry, electronics, robotics, etc. How could they achieve this with a crummy writing system? I don’t know. It must have made everything twice as hard for them (like trying to open a tin of sardines with one hand tied behind back), but somehow they were able to tough it out and get the job done. I guess a similar example (not as dramatic) would be USA using old, archaic system of weights and measures instead of switching to metric system like the rest of the civilized world; and yet, no one would call USA technologically backwards. So I would say that this counter-example disproves the thesis that Chinese civilization was kept back (a lot) by its writing system. But I would still advise Chinese people to reform their writing system and make their language easier for foreigners to learn to read; no doubt this would also improve literacy training among their own population. And, while I’m on the subject, ENGLISH orthography is also badly in need of reform. English alphabet cannot even call itself phonemic any more, although that was the original intention. The fact that I even had to use spell-checking software on this comment is a sure sign that something is very wrong here…

    • Doug M. says

      …there has actually been some research on this. Short version: Japanese and Chinese systems do take longer to learn, but they’re not much harder for children of school age. More time-consuming, but not more difficult. Kids have an astonishing ability to memorize huge amounts of stuff, especially if you catch them at the right age.

      Note that overseas Chinese have been keeping their kids bilingual and fluent in Chinese writing since at least the 16th century. That was true in Malaysia or the Philippines 400 years ago; it’s true in the Bay Area today. Anatoly, if you have a Chinese-American acquaintance, ask if he or she went to Chinese language school. If the person is under 40, it’s possible; if over 40, it’s quite likely. It doesn’t seem to be any worse than violin lessons.

      Doug M.

    • japanese have a variety of writing systems..Kanji(which is logographic chinese systems of writing).The second is the kana system introduced by buddhist priest kukai .This is a phonetic system inspired from the siddham script(sanskrit) .
      Sources:Kanji—wiki ,google

  17. …I just got around to looking at that graph. Is that “Israel” in the middle there? literacy rate in 1800?


    — 1800 literacy rates for places like Brazil, “India”, and “Indonesia” must be speculative at best.

    — “Africa”? WTF? Most of the continent was completely illiterate, but there were pockets — parts of West Africa, Zanzibar — where the literacy rate was probably 20% or better. You can’t really represent a continent with a single dot.

    — “Germany”? By 1800, German literacy rates were high, but varied widely over the region that’s now called Germany. Prussia’s education system was already awesome by then, producing literacy rates in the range of 60% – 75%. But the rest of Germany ranged down to maybe half of that.

    This may sound like nitpicking, but it’s not hard to include some clarifying footnotes or error bars: |—*—| instead of *. When a graph is this careless in its presentation, it makes me wonder if the author has been equally careless in his data collection.

    Doug M.

  18. One last point: while written Chinese is a huge PITA for foreigners, *spoken* Chinese is not all that hard. Yes, it has tone codes. But that’s the only really hard thing about it. (And tone codes are not completely unknown in most languages. Even English has a few: can I present you with a present?) The grammar is simple and straightforward. There’s nothing like English’s ridiculously complex tenses or the inflections that make life miserable for adults learning German or Russian. (Quick: what’s the feminine plural in the dative case for nouns of the first declension?) There are no irregular verbs, irregular plurals, or case endings. Almost all words have just one grammatical form! Compare this to English, where the foreigner must memorize three forms (eat, eaten, ate; see, saw, have seen; am, was, were) for every single verb.

    In English, just to manipulate a simple sentence like “I see a child”, you have to know a bunch of different word forms. Change the number? It becomes “I see children” — you must know the plural form, and also that the plural drops the article. Change the time? “I saw a child” (or “I have seen a child”, “I had seen a child”, “I was seeing a child”, depending), you have to know the correct past verb form. Switch subject and object? “A child sees me” — and again, you have two out of four words changing their form.

    Chinese doesn’t do any of this.

    The tone codes — and the lack of cognates — are daunting. But once you actually start speaking it, you realize how dead easy it actually is.

    Doug M.

  19. “feudalism was the dominant social structure”

    … in Walter Scott’s novels, maybe, in real Europe feudalism was a polite fiction.

    Meritocratic bureaucracy ? … is this a joke ? the Mandarin exams had “poetry tests” … how relevant for an administration job is that, and how objective could the examination be ?

    Before Mao China was not a country, but a civil war … the Uyghurs that made the news last year even had an independent state in the 1800s, recognized by most European countries.

    Economic freedom in China ? Maybe a myriad of territorial cartels, operating with the approval of and paying tribute to local warlords or bureaucrats, and doing their best to squeeze farmers that had no freedom of movement, nor any other rights besides the mercy of the “meritocratically” appointed bureaucrat.

    Europe had it’s guilds and warlords and bureaucrats, but there was no one central authority to support them, and when a region collapsed under the weight of rent seekers, other regions took advantage.

  20. actually english is a phonetic language but it has spelling problems is no denying. What it lacks is phonemic orthography.There’s not one-to-one correspondence between graphemes and phonemes.Most indic languages,sanskrit,dutch,czeck etc do not .And whats more pathetic is shows like spelling bee actually glorify this fault.Kids wasting their time…
    Sources:Phonemic orthography–wiki,google
    English spelling reform–wiki ,google
    P.S I am not saying other languages are better or easier to learn which depends on a lot of other factors.If ther is a spelling error its not my fault 🙂

  21. I already thought that language was the culprit (or well, one of the culprits – the world is much too complex to have singular causes) for China’s relatively late industrialization.

    As a child, my family spoke Cantonese at home. In addition, I took classes in Chinese. Nevertheless, I still cannot read or write in Chinese. It’s just too hard of a language.

    Your comment about moveable type is really amusing. It is baffling how China invented something that is completely useless in the context of the Chinese language, but would revolutionize the world in terms of printing and literacy in Europe centuries later.

  22. below_freezing says

    However, Chinese has one major advantage in the Information Age, which is what really matters in the here and now: information density per character. I can express the same thought with 4 characters, that I knew in elementary school, that would require a paragraph in English.

  23. Scott Peterson says

    I believe that the Chinese writing system is more of a handicap than a core source of China’s failure to keep up with Western expansionism. More time spent in school mastering the writing system leaves less time for learning and thinking and communicating about the academic subjects that a writing system is supposed to facilitate.

  24. Chinese have Western civilization to help them out greatly ). It’s God’s Providence.
    Chinese characters, as any symbols, stimulate intuition…

  25. Fascinating reading here. May I add something which I think has been overlooked? What about the nature of communications in a vast empire where since the 1200s at least, the capital has been located in the northern part of the country but the bulk of China’s population lives far south in mountainous areas subject to frequent earthquakes? A country also where rivers tend to run west to east rather than on a north-south axis which makes riverine-based transport (and thus communication and the ideas that go with it) difficult for north-south trade? China did build canals linking the Huang He and Jiangzi rivers hundreds of years ago but the rivers were often subject to flooding.

    The areas in China where Mandarin is the dominant language tend to be in northern, north-central and southwestern parts (Sichuan). In the southeast you have Wu (Shanghai and surrounds), Fujianese, the Yueh dialects (Cantonese and related dialects), Hakka and others. Then there are tribal languages related to Thai, Lao, Vietnamese and some others. The existence of several languages in one fairly compact area suggests this phenomenon: difficult communications in a mountainous region, enabling the survival of communities possibly hostile to or at least indifferent to Beijing. A similar phenomenon can be observed in the Caucasus Mountain region. Is it possible that difficult communications enable the survival of communities with attitudes that have the indirect result of inhibiting the easy spread of ideas such as mass education and literacy, and so preventing China from making the leap to an Industrial Revolution?

    Today the wealthiest parts of China tend to be areas close to the sea and along the major rivers but it’s surprising that apparently you don’t have to go very far inland to find some very poor areas, usually in very mountainous provinces. Coastal provinces like Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang have high regional per capita GDPs but go to neighbouring Anhui and Jiangxi provinces and these areas have some of the lowest regional per capital GDPs (I’m looking at a map of China’s regional GDP per capita for 2004 that I ripped out of New Scientist magazine years ago). Guangxi province is one of China’s poorest and least developed yet it’s right next door to Guangdong province.

    Consider also how separate elites were from the common people and whether either group cared much for the spiritual and intellectual welfare for the other. Traditional Confucianist, Buddhist and Daoist teachings may have some influence here in that they encouraged people to look out for their families and clans, and maybe for members of their social class, but not for people unrelated to them. With such attitudes prevailing in traditional Chinese society, how would concern for mass education and literacy take root? The uproar that took place when recently the little girl was run over by two cars and left for dead in Foshan tells you something about traditional Chinese attitudes towards social co-operation: you look out for your relatives and others you know but strangers take care of themselves.

    If you look at what constitutes “traditional” European cultures, you find nearly all of them emphasise peasant or “common” traditions and customs. If you look at Korean and Japanese “traditional” cultures, there is also some emphasis on the customs and traditions of farmers and artisans. Japanese traditional culture in particular is famous for having a bourgeois culture that developed durng the Tokugawa period (1603 – 1867): think of kabuki theatre, bunraku puppetry, woodblock printing and literature and art that catered for middle classes and lower classes (with a huge emphasis on pornography – a tutor on ancient Greek culture once told me ancient Greece and Tokugawa-era Japan are the only cultures outside 19th and 20th century Western cultures to have considerable pornographic literature).

    Look at what passes for “traditional” Chinese culture though and nearly all of it is the culture of the elite. This doesn’t say much positive for inter-social actions within Chinese society before the 20th century. Also consider that from 1644 to 1912, China was ruled by a foreign elite. The Manchus in 1644 were originally a group related to Mongols and some Siberian groups around the Amur river. The Manchus did have their own alphabet based on the Mongolian alphabet that ultimately derives from a Semitic alphabet (I think it was Aramaic or Syriac). There’s the possibility that the Chinese elites spurned the use of alphabets because people they considered inferior to them used alphabets!

    I find it funny that past linguistics experts considered Chinese ia “primitive” language because of its analytical grammar. So-called “primitive” peoples, ie those peoples following a hunter-gatherer lifestyle with simple technologies often speak languages with fiendishly complex grammars. Over time as societies acquire technology and culture from outside and develop their own, their languages tend to drop excessive grammatical baggage due to borrowing and interactions with other languages that create “interference”, particularly if the other languages are related to the host society language. This is how English developed over time.

    • Chinese saying about that: “The mountains are high, and the Emperor is far away.” But I don’t think it played a huge role. The reality is that China was for all that far more inter-connected (canals, roads, etc) than Europe until the 19th century.

      I have to say that since writing that post I have majorly changed my mind on the causes of Chinese historical backwardness.

  26. Alphabet advantages ?
    Neighbouring India has alphabet for Hindi, plus Indian English as their second language. Nonetheless it remains in “deep” tradition and looks like to remain there forever, due to their caste system and other “traditions”.
    China, with hieroglyphics, make a fastest seen progress in modernization of its economy and society.

    • Corruption is a major problem in India, more so perhaps than “traditions”. For anyone from India visiting here, there is a website I Paid A Bribe which was set up by a former public servant specifically to address government corruption in India. Website address is http://www.ipaidabribe.com.

      Interesting that in recent historical times the people of southern India, in particular Tamil speakers and people in Karnataka (where the space industry and the IT industry were originally based), have been far more progressive and scientific than people in northern India yet they have some of the country’s most ancient literatures and traditions.

  27. Looking at it from another angle, it is not that China stagnate, it is that Europe suddenly took off with the advent of the Industrial Revolution in England. Traditionally China has technologies but not basic science. By basic science, I mean Newtonian mechanics, Maxwell equations…etc. Gun power, magnetic compass, paper making…etc. are technologies, they are not basic science. Without basic science, you cannot go very far and industrial revolution cannot happen.

    So the question is why the Europeans discovered basic science and not the Chinese? I think any civilization with a high enough cognitive abilities will eventually discover basic science. It might very well be a historical coincidence that it happened in Europe first.

  28. You’re absolutely correct with regards to the deficits forced by the Chinese script. Comparing Japan and China in the 1800s, Japan had a literacy level superior to that of many European states, and all it requires is learning / memorizing 100 or so characters. This is not for strict literacy; it doesnli’t mean that the Japanese can actually read their Kanji, but it means that they can communicate and write using their Kana systems with Furigana attached to Kanji as necessary. China, on the other hand, kept to around 10% or less of the population being literate, and this was with the traditional script, which is myriads more complicated than the simplified version promulgated by the Communists.

    As I mentioned elsewhere, there’s also Sapir-Whorf effects enforced by a character-based system; the time required to write full Chinese words (Hou 後 takes 11 strokes to write, and requires the activation of a drawing system, as opposed to a more simple writing system for “back” or “rear”, the former requiring 7 strikes and the latter requiring 5) impacts linguistic evolution and forces terseness in communication.


    By the way, the Chinese already had mass production / industrialization in the Qin dynasty, sort of how like the Romans also had a workshop system. The Qin state produced weapons in government-controlled workshops, complete with quality control inspectors, punishable by death for Q&A failures. And Chinese lacquerware was produced in stages and in batches, whereas the Japanese switched off to a simpler techinque (and innovated in their own way) because they didn’t understand how to do mass production.

    Chinese porcelain is also the result of workshop systems, not individual craftsmen producing each piece piece by piece; these things would be painted and fired in batches, not on a piece by piece basis.

    ” Expectations of output ranged from 100 per day for a man throwing small bowls and saucers to 10 per day for a man making large vessels.11 Clearly, porcelain was mass-produced by a specialized workforce engaged in a highly organized process. While not a matter of individual inspiration, porcelain production provides an impressive precedent for large-scale manufacturing.”


  29. Why were dark age europians not advanced with alphabets.
    Why, after renaissnace, did industrial revolution happen?
    Why was Japan be able to industrilize it’s nation after the western influence?
    It is self-evident that without chinise letters, Japan could not traslate western books in Meiji era.
    In Asia including Japan, Korea, China, without chinise character, 3 nations could not translate western books.
    Kanji in Jananese and Korean alphabet are only used fuctional words such as preposition in English or very easy words.
    Most abstract words can be expressed only in Chinese character or the way it is pronounced in korean and japanese alphabet.
    It is like, in Eglish most abstract and conceptualized words are borrowed from Latin, Greek.

    So, whethere it is alphabet or chinese is not important. The important thing is what contains in languages.
    Among great civilazations, only ancient greek made a giant scientific leap.
    Only those who were influenced by ancient greek culture did industrilize.

    Alphabet is not a cause of industrialization, it is just one of the attributes of Greek culture.

  30. web /google search for a history of china

    1. china was the “”” sick man of asia /century of shame. china has been going on decline for 300 years.

    china has contributed nothing to the world for last 500 years. now.

    china in 1980 has an annual income $200. Two dollars. is this nation that any can be proud.

    2. china did NOT have scientific revolution .industrial revoluton. china only to industrialize in the 1980s. this is after NO progress for 500 years.

    $200: TWO HUNDRED ANNUAL INCOME IN 1980. After 200 years of history, china has annual income of $200 dollars. or less than $20 dollars a month.

    3. Intel corporation ceo Craig Barrett went to china and said “”””80 % are Dumb Peasants””””” china is an pre-industrial . pre-science. pre-industrial nation till the take-off in 1980.

    china had NO change for 500 years till 1980.
    4. Feudal emperor rule till 1911. The last emperor was Puyi in 1911 ( 3-year baby in 1911) and red -emperor /blue ants in 1949.


    china needs to follow example of “”” republic of turkey”

    a. abolish all ugly hanzi , primative, barbaric ugly. no civilized nations uses such ugly, primative characters.

    b. free vote for National congress. Turkey has “grand national assembly. china a two -house National Assembly where all work of government can be monitored by the National congress.

    c. US has 1% of worker in farming. one percent farming /10% in factory. Hence, 90% do NOT work in either farming or manufacturing.

    All advanced nations move from Farming (1%) to Factory (80%) to Service / Information processing./cloud.

    90% of people farming to 1% farming. Farming (1 %) to to 80% service /information cloud computing.