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No. 400:
Chinese Technology

Today, China fails to isolate herself from a whirlwind. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The Jesuits tried to open China up in the late 1500s. The Ming Dynasty was wealthy, powerful, and stable. China had rich agriculture, a fine water-power base, and a spider web of waterways. She had highly refined craft technologies. Her porcelains and silks were the finest in the world. And, in a world that wouldn't trade with the outside world, her merchants sat on the lowest rung of the social ladder.

The Chinese listened politely while the Jesuits talked about European science. Then they replied: Europe, they said, had nothing to offer a superior culture. They did like our mathematics. But the only produce items that remotely caught their interest were Europe's marvelous mechanical clocks.

Emperor Wan-li agreed that mechanical clocks made fine toys, but not much more than that. He was wrong, of course. Clocks were the stalking horses for a new class of scientific instruments. Science was changing into a rational pursuit that would soon take invention where it never had been. By 1700 the wedding of science and invention had led to the steam engine. By 1700 we were firing the first shots in the Industrial Revolution.

English production and Dutch shipbuilding reshaped Europe into a great international department store. Chinese porcelain and silks were the most lucrative commodities in that store. The wealthy in England and Europe were hypnotized by things Chinese. By the 18th century they added a new Chinese commodity to their want list. They added tea.

But the Chinese had no interest in anything the West might offer them. Trade balances drifted hopelessly out of whack as Western gold vanished into China.

Then England found a commodity it could sell to China. England began growing opium in its Asian colonies and moving it across the borders -- illegally. By the early 1800s they'd righted the trade inequities. They'd also addicted millions of people and shredded the fabric of Chinese society.

China finally went to war against England to stop the drug trade. But now she found herself fighting the most powerful nation on earth. After three years, she had to give in and form a series of international trade agreements.

Those events haunt us today. Drugs from the poorer countries are doing to us just what England did to China. Now we've started unloading our equally addictive tobacco on them. If only China had joined the free trade of technology in 1600! And what might the world be today, if only our trade with poorer nations were a trade in ideas instead of a trade in drugs?

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

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I did this piece after I watched a NOVA piece on television. It was The Genius That Was China: Part 2 of 4. However, this story is told and retold in all the standard sources.