It has often been stated that the Chinese during the Middle Ages were superior to Europeans in “science and technology.” A problem with this claim is that science and technology were traditionally completely separate disciplines. They only started merging after the Scientific Revolution, and then only in the Western world. East Asians did well in applied technology with a limited theoretical basis, yes, but they were not equally good in the physical sciences.
The great Temple of Heaven was constructed in fifteenth century Beijing. Symptomatically, the Earth was represented by a flat square and Heaven by a circle, which accurately reflects the fact that the Earth was widely held to be flat in Chinese cosmology well into modern times. By contrast, it was common in medieval Europe to see a cross-bearing orb on royal regalia, symbolizing Christ’s dominion over the world. One striking aspect of this is that the Earth was here represented as a spherical object. This was for instance the case with the Orb, Scepter and Crown insignia of the Holy Roman Empire, possibly dating back to the tenth century AD. At this time, Europe was barely recovering from the collapse of urban civilization, while China, with the world’s largest and most sophisticated economy, went from the Tang to the Song Dynasty and was in the middle of one of the most technologically creative phases in its history. Another way of saying this is that Europeans had a more scientifically correct understanding of the shape and size of the Earth in a period when urban civilization barely existed there than the Chinese had while performing at their very best.
The consensus among Chinese scholars until around 1600 AD, more than two thousand years after Greek thinkers had demonstrated that the Earth is spherical, was that the Earth is flat. This basic error wasn’t corrected until they encountered modern European astronomers.
People of European origins are constantly accused of harboring prejudice against members of other cultures, but the more I read of European history, the more I realize that some of the worst prejudice actually targets our own ancestors. Many Westerners too readily believe that medieval Europeans were primitive simpletons who thought that the Earth was flat while the Chinese were scientifically sophisticated. As we have just seen, reality is just the opposite.
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