What Role Did Language Play In China's Scientific Stagnation

China had historically been a place of great scientific advancement and is well known for having beaten Europe to a great many innovations and discoveries. However, by at least the sixteenth century China's scientific and technological advancement had entered a period of prolonged stagnation, one which allowed Europe to overtake China in the sciences.
The Needham question asks why China suddenly fell behind Europe in the sciences. Joseph Needham himself argued that it was the rising negative political and cultural impact of Confucianism and Taoism which stifled advancement, perhaps similar to the European Dark Ages. While perhaps partially accurate, this argument seems insufficient on its own to fully explain the phenomenon.
One interesting case I've heard put forward is that the Chinese language itself played a prohibitive role in terms of scientific advancement beyond a certain point. While the Chinese were advanced enough to invent the printing press many years ahead of Europe, the Chinese language lacked an alphabet or system of writing which could be easily codified into a mass-producible typeset. As a result, printing remained an exclusive and expensive practice in China.

This contrasts dramatically with the European case, where the easy availability of printing for the emerging educated middle classes after the renaissance period allowed for the rapid spread of ideas and knowledge, and was essential for the move towards a modern scientific community and the widening of education programmes.
This idea reminded me of a similar but seemingly unrelated problem encountered by the Chinese relating to their written language: the difficulty of learning to read and write it with any fluency. The problem was seen as so severe that in efforts to boost literacy the young People's Republic took the drastic step of changing their written character system to the Simplified Chinese we students of the language are thankful for today.
Do people think that the added difficulties in learning to read and write (which probably restricted literacy on class lines more dramatically than in Europe post-Reformation) is a potential significant contributing factor to the Chinese scientific and technological stagnation of the last few centuries?

Which explanations of the Needham paradox do posters favour? Do you feel there are other significant contributing factors which are routinely ignored?


Smilin' dave
Couldn't it be argued that the diversity of languages in Europe would act as an equally significant barrier to the spread of ideas?

In support of a cultural explanation:
- There was no development of a simplified mass language because there was no 'need'. The more complicated language probably served the elites well enough, and the peasantry would have gotten no value from it. There really wasn't much of a middle class right up until the collapse of imperial China.
- While a number of ideas/concepts occurred in China first, it was often only in Europe that these things reached full potential. Gunpowder in the classic example.

Yu-Hsing Chen(Re:ls)
What is the definition of middle class here? 
There is also a misconception of using the late 19th century Qing as a biometer for the entire Ming / Qing era. ignoring the obvious problems that was plauging it at the time (like how it's entire fertile and cultured region in the south was completely overran by the Taiping rebellion)
As far as I can see, based on the fact that most sources points to the better days of Ming / Qing era typically having several MILLION people at most given time who's passed the lowest level of the imperial exam (call the children's exam) . this exclude kids who are still learning, and women who aren't allow to take the test. and the guys who since quit their studies or aren't actually learned enough (since the exam is not just about literacy, it is testing on Confucian text) . (We are abosalutely sure of figures of guys passing the next level, the county test, typically hovering in the 500-600K range nation wide.)
Many scholar now believe that at it's height in the Song dynasty, the actual literacy rate in the Song was somewhere close to 25-30%, while even in the Ming/Qing it was probably 15-20% or so (this is based on it's better days, and not when everything is going to hell for them), from everything I hear of Europe at the time, I have doubts that there is really much separation if not being the other way around.

Yu-Hsing Chen
As for the Needhamquestion, there are a couple of aspects IMHO.
A. the need: 
After the collapse of the western Roman empire, Europe was never united again, thus there was a constant pressure on almost all states of potential war, yet such was not the case in China, where each major dynasty typically sees at least a hundred year of near total peace. 
Military technology develope due to military need, that much is a no-brainer, yet for example, in the reign of Wanli emperor in late 16th century China, typically seen as one of the more troubled times of the Ming, the Ming dynasty fought a total of 6 notable wars in his 50ish year rule. and of these only 3 were really serious (the Imjin war against the Japanese, the war to finally subdue the Mongols in his early reign, and the war against the rising Manchus that would end up replacing the Ming in his late years) while 3 were meh (a major military garrison rebellion , one of the 9 garrison in the north rebelled, a local chieften in the South took over a portion of modern day Sichuan in the 1590s, and a border war against the Burmese that was kinda a joke given the huge disaparity in military competence of the two side at the time)
We're talking about a Dynasty who's realm is roughly the size of Western Europe, yet in a 50 year span that's considered rough, they had 3 sort of major war and 3 smaller war.
Military technology often push the bonderies of human technology, and in China the need simply wasn't consistently there. you might say they did TOO good of a job in bashing in the head of all their competitor . by the Qing era there was even a backward trend as the Qing was keen on keeping their nomadic core at the heart of their military. so it is quite arguable that by the Opium war in 1839, the Qing army was infact significantly technologically inferior to the Ming army of 1639.
B. the key break through: the series of events that lead to the west discovering the Americas and new trade rout was one of the key reason that it surged forward . one could say that China reached a pinnical of the old world's restriction and stayed there. but when Europe discovered a new world they moved ahead into a new set of rules. something China was simply completely left out of.
The need to look for a new trade rout had much to do with the closing of the old, which had much to do with the Mongol invasion and the subsequent rise of the Ottoman empire. the closing of the old trade rout killed the old traditional commerical power like the Italian states (and more over, the middle east. hence the decline of the middle east is also explained) and in the desperation to find a new rout the European forced the limits of the knowledge and technology, and was rewarded greatly.

Smilin' dave
Generally speaking its an economic/societal thing. I would suggest a metric of a class that has not insignificant property holdings (be that land, a business concern or whatever). In modern terms this might be a little vague. However distinction is even more pronounced in a relatively feudal system as existed in China, where the upper class and it's chosen servants (which is essentially what the scholars were for) are defined in large part by title.
The peasant on the other hand had no property of value (if they held land, it was too small to be effective) and certainly no official title. So China's middle class seems to have consisted of landlords, and later on a thin layer of urban professionals.

Yu-Hsing Chen
Except that you miss the point of relative social mobility here. the scholars' title is not a father to son thing, but one that is based on the imperial exam. 
There is a mountain of evidence that the vast majority of scholars who pass the exams came from families of only relatively notable wealth (aka, small land owners) , or at least weren't direct decendents of other officals . (there is a small degree of title inheritency, but it is without a doubt that the majority of influential officials did not rise through this route)
The term "peasants" gets thrown around so much that many draw the same conclusion that Chinese peasants = European medieva l peasants, aka serfs who have almost no legal rights, no true property, and almost no chance of changing their social status . which is the complete opposite of what the majority of Chinese farmers were actually like. (for example, the single biggest order of busniess for local officals of the time is to settle local legal disputes, usually between different farmers. this includes everything from marriage to property to all sorts of random stuff.)

I can easily throw you just about every notable offical from the Song to Qing, which is consisted almost entirely of such examples (barring some Qing dynasty cases where they were Manchurian noblemans)
But let's just start with one very easy one, the Song era offical Oyang Xiu, who became a fairly influential offical in his own right (he was the governor of the capital city), but was probably more remembered for his cultural importance. he is widly famous for being recorded that he was raised by a single mother, and that he actually learned to write on sand, as the single mother couldn't afford any pens and paper when he was a child
While he is obviously on the rather extreme side of a poor guy making it. it's quite common for guys with little to no background becomming officals in China, something that can change the fortune of his entire clan for the next couple of generation usually. which is also why most villages hoard together resources to hire teacher to teach their brighter kids how to read and write with the hope of them earning fame and fortune through this system.
The social mobility is a very key reason on the stability of the later Chinese dynasties, because almost anyone can potentially become high ranking officals. the officals most likely come from common backgrounds, and will go back to common backgrounds when he retires, thus the entire society ties together tightly and the class distinction and struggle become much less noticable.
 If you even pass the basic county level exam, your considered a Xiu Tsai, aka into the "scholar" level. which give you the right to speak to all but the highest level officals on even grounds (aka, you don't need to bow to him, he can't arrest you without extremely strong evidence. ) and there were tons of Xiu Tsai running around China during the era, at the least 1 out of 100 man was a certified Xiu Tsai (or more) and those prospecting to join that class is several times that.
Many of those Xiu Tsai would never rise to higher levels, and they worked in things like scribes or tutors or story tellers, hardly a "elite" class by any standard. stories of old Xiu Tsais who couldn't go up to the next level needing to borrow rice and money from their much less learned neighbor (and thus often earning their scorns ) are one of the most common themes to late Ming to Qing dynasty era novels.

Smilin' dave
Social mobility doesn't necessarily undermine class distinctions if the movement between 'layers' results in someone changing their social background. After all the US has an upper class and basically no system of title (none if you consider elected office as a different category). As I understand it the poorest could only afford the education to pass the exams by seeking sponsorship from a wealthy family for example, which ties our 'peasant' to an upper class group from day one.

Is it also no correct that those who passed the exams didn't always find employment within the system? While they would experience some social boost from their status, such persons would enjoy no economic advantage, which brings us back to the need for significant property to be considered middle class.
The same example could be applied to Russian peasants, both pre and post serfdom. Even a serf might have some notional 'property', but they probably didn't completely own it.

Again, nepotism or patronage doesn't undermine class definitions.
So to re-emphasise my points
- None of this proves that there was an apparent need for a commonly used language. Indeed the scholars were in part being tested for their ability to use the language of the elite.
- None of this proves the existence of a significant middle class as emerged in Europe.
All of what you are saying is quite interesting, and probably true. However, it doesn't undermine my position in this discussion.

Yu-Hsing Chen
There are some exception to the rule where some guys just somehow managed to learn through extraoridnary means, (such as Oyang Xiu's example there) for the most part though, the actual cost of learning was not actually that far beyond the reach of the average Chinese families, which is the key issue here. as the books were in common supply (which goes back to the printing part, as books were widely avalible and all but the most remote village most likely could pool together resource to buy some, and it was hardly just some sort of exquist collection reserved for the rich )

The most common method is that the individual communities would try to put together a private school where they will let those deem on the relatively bright side learn. As already noted, there was really no shortage of teachers. (if not an over supply, which meant the cost of hiring teacher was actually very low ) . truly wealthy families (bigger landlords. merchant familes) often just hire their own tutors. these private schools were called ShiXu (私塾) and were still pretty common even up to around the 1930s.
The final incarnation of the imperial exam essentially had 4 level (the details are obviously more complicated but for simplicity sake here..) the Childrens' exam, the County level exam (after this your considered a scholar), the provincial exam (after this your considered an official), and the Capital exam.

The patronage aspect I have referred to usually isn't the learning part, it's the cost of travel, many of those Chinese provinces were bigger than a large European states. simply travelling to the provincial capital (not to meantion you need to stay there for awhile, both for the test and waiting the results) is actually a significantly heavier burden than learning itself. hence why you see why some popular late Ming/Qing stories usually revolving around the poor Xiu Tsais passing out on the street due to hunger (as his funds ran out), only to be saved by a beautiful young lady who generously helped him, unaware of his status. only for the Xiu Tsai to come back awhile later announcing that he's now a future official and would like to marry the girl etc, it's the Chinese version of the frog prince really.
Once your past the provincial level of test, your almost surely guarnteed a government position of some sort (and if you didn't that's usually when dynasties were ready to go to hell), the final level of exam, taken in the capital itself, is more or less only relavant to your later developments. aka guys who pass the final level (the final level's passing rate is actually pretty high.) are more likely to end up being promoted faster than those who did not.
However, the most difficult part is indeed passing the provincial level part. and those that are stuck inbetween that are what your referring to, those we have the title of a scholar but very little actual economic benifits (the states do sponsor some of them with a scholarship of sort, but the majority don't get that). But they're also just potentially one stroke of the pen away from being an offical.
I am more specifically trying to compare the later dynasties of China (10th century onward) to the pre - industrial Europe. the key thing remains that China was stuck in that era . while Europe moved foward. but if we compare that era to most of the comparable European eras, there is signifcant evidence that points to the Chinese system being better for the common people, relative wealth is obviously a subject of debate. but potential social movement is almost certainly higher. and due to the system that allows that, literacy rate was most likely wider spread (which goes back to the original topic, Chinese literacy rate in the the later 19th century to mid 20th century was terrible compare to industrialized Europe, but what evidence is there that this was the case before that? everything I have read suggest that in most pre industrial European area literacy rate was far south of the 20-30% that later Chinese dynasties usually can sustain.), and class distinction and struggle were significantly less.
The European middle class your referring to did not actually come into serious existence until the industrial revolution (one could argue that the North American colonist reach that point earlier though. on the merits of their land grabbing). by that point and beyond anyone would surely agree that the Chinese were left behind by a mile and only by the last couple of decades have even begun to catch up. that does not actually undermine many of the merits of the later Chinese social system relative to what was going on in most of Europe until probably the early half of the 18th century at the earliest.

Smilin' dave
Actually the middle class in much of Europe first achieve prominence in agriculture, not industry. The most natural example was the emergence of the wool trade, which created a more merchantile aspect and lead to a craze for raising sheep. To a lesser extent you have wine cultivators in France. This shift lead to practices like enclosure, which in turn reflected the end of feudal land management.

Yu-Hsing Chen
THe main point in this is that there is simply little evidence in the Chinese dynasties having a lower literacy rate than Western Europe as a whole. at least until public eduction really became relatively wide spread. it was more likely to have been the other way around. due to Chinese dynasties providing high incentives for it's civilians to go into learning.
I'm am no expert on European history , but from some tibits I pick up here and there, using say.. England (which was almost surely at the forefront of Europe in most aspects from the early 1700s onward) in 1830s there were roughly 25% of children enrolled in sunday schools in England. so add on top of that the nobilities and we come to to the conclusion that at that point the litearcy rate in England
(the best in Europe most likely) was what? in the 30-40% range ? just a little better than say.. the Song dynasty in about 700-800 years earlier.
The point is, China's stagnation seem to have been little influenced by literacy rates. which was actually very high by pre-industrial standards. it was a combination of many other things, and IMHO the single largest aspect remains that because it's economic zone of influence simply remained the same and even shrank. (as the old trade routs closed down to them after the Mongolian invasion). their economic level simply never was able to reach the point that would offer them to jump onto the next level... until the Qing dynasty in the mid 1800s. and by then that was probably more of a curse than a blessing to be suddenly exposed to a whole new world .

No comments: