Monday, May 23, 2011

Fjordman: Was Medieval China Superior to Europe in the Sciences?

Fjordman’s latest essay has been published at Tundra Tabloids. Some excerpts are below:

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.

Read the rest at Tundra Tabloids.


allat said...

So, Fjordman wants to insist that European culture was superior! He's going to beat the subject to death, until we all concede to his point. It's the usual competition attitude of the European, that they MUST be on top!

But the whole comparision of cultures, this time, Chinese and European, is like comparing apples and pears, when in fact, each was advanced in difference ways.

In the fifteen c. Europe was still SEEKING the riches of the East- does that not speak for itself, and the lack of Europe? They wanted the silks, dyes, gems, pearls, jade, medicines, dyes, lapis lazuli, blue sapphires, GOLD, SILVER, chinaware, turquoises, and everything else the Europeans could get their hands on.

What does that say for Fjordman's argument?

Latin Amazon

mace said...

I agree with Fjordman,there's often confusion between science and technology and there is also an unjustified assumption that science necessarily informs technology.
In pre-industrial societies techniques were adopted on a 'trial and error' basis. For example, metalsmiths didn't need to understand- (1)quantum theory to realise that color is an indicator of temperature, or (2) the concept of pH to refine potassium nitrate from manure.

I'm not disputing that Chinese technology was superior during most of the medieval period,however, without a scientific basis, Chinese technical development stagnated.

Science is an exclusively Western European development.If China overtakes the West economically,it will be through the adoption of Western techniques of science and industrialization.

philip.zhao said...

Thanks to Matteo Ricci who knocked open the Chinese minds in Qing Dynasty, the concept of the sphere-shaped earth was accepted and henseforth the word for EARTH in Chinese language is " Di-qiou" which means literally--earth ball.
In sharp contrast, the muslims are still closing their minds to the belief that the earth is Allah's toy, a frisbee !

Higuma said...

China was technologically superior for a long time. Also, science existed in China. They developed chrome roughly 2,000 years ago. You don't find that without experimenting and researching.

I would suggest looking through Chinese history and how often the country, this HUGE country, was torn apart in civil wars. It's the same in Japan. The Japanese used what they found in the wars. The country was, at one point, at constant war for more than 100 years.

China didn't stagnate because of a lack of science. It stagnated because of several very simple reasons.

Also, by the time Europeans came to Japan, the Europeans didn't bath because they believed bathing makes you sick...

And the scientific method in Europe is pretty young. And why is that? Because your religions hampered it for centuries.

rui said...

"silks, dyes, gems, pearls, jade, medicines, dyes, lapis lazuli, blue sapphires, GOLD, SILVER, chinaware, turquoises, and everything else the Europeans could get their hands on."

None of which were technology or science. European nations had vision to look elsewhere for the goods they lacked in Europe, while doing away with the middle man.

mace said...


What you're referring to is simply technique, not science,read my earlier post. The Europeans were at war continually during the same period and still managed to make great progress in science and technology. So the West,in contrast to China, turned the situation to their advantage. Unlike China and Japan, Western civilization was nearly destroyed,however the Europeans recovered and built a far superior culture.So chaotic conditions in China are not a justification for China's stagnation.

You should 'look through' European history and refrain from making ignorant comments.