Has China been Consistently Ahead of European Civilization?

Explanations addressing why European civilization has been more dominant than Chinese often center on two points:  First, Europe’s lead over the past 500 years was a historical exception; Second, Chinese weakness in the 19th century prevented them from harnessing the power of the Industrial Revolution.

This first point can be dismissed on grounds it ignores the greater accomplishments of Ancient Greece and Rome compared to their Chinese contemporaries.  It also ignores Greek ruled Byzantium which outlasted the Western Empire by a thousand years and might still exist if the Crusaders’ efforts had met with more success.

The one span of history when China’s advantage over the West was greatest was the Dark Ages.  This time was the exception; otherwise Europe’s lead in innovation relative to China has been consistently overwhelming before and after.  The record of Chinese underperformance is of such a long-standing kind that it is debatable whether their civilization routinely matched the great pre-Islamic cultures of the Near East.

As for the point made in China’s defense about its extended weakness during the Industrial Revolution, there is no good reason to assume that if these episodes were ones of strength that they would have been sufficient to break China free of its normal trend of lagging Europe.  When strong, China never innovated major aspects of civilization.  Its cultural zeniths were reached when it was competently run and wealthy, but never rising beyond that.

Only European civilization has proven a capacity for reinvention.

Not so with Europe’s period of weakness:  If we are asked to consider what the condition of China might have been sans particular stages of decline, we may also speculate about Europe’s condition absent the Dark Ages.

The Fall of Rome did not necessarily have to be followed by this hard-landing.  Consider if it had been a soft-landing where the Empire dissolved but the new kingdoms that emerged from Rome had largely preserved knowledge of Roman engineering, law, government, standards of living, record keeping, literacy, and trade links; and finally passed this knowledge to the Germanic tribes as they were Christianized.

In this case the European advancements made from the start of the Medieval Ages to the Industrial Revolution would likely have instead emerged between the 6th and the 12th centuries, while the China of this alternate timeframe would not have proceeded very differently from how it did in history.

The consistent lead Europe has enjoyed in creativity over China for the past 3,000 years is obvious to anyone open to historical facts.  That consistency must make the default assumption about this European advantage be that it is an inherently genetic advantage, and not one brought about by environmental circumstances.

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14 thoughts on “Has China been Consistently Ahead of European Civilization?”

  1. I agree with your conclusion about creativity. But as you know the consensus is that Chinese average IQ is somewhat above northern European levels. Of course, some people believe that Chinese IQ stats are deliberately manipulated. But might it be that both conclusions are possible and not mutually exclusive? I’ve heard it said that bright Chinese students educated in the liberal west tend to be more creative than their home-educated peers, who learn in a more authoritarian and regimented environment that actively discourages original thinking.

  2. But as you know the consensus is that Chinese average IQ is somewhat above northern European levels. Of course, some people believe that Chinese IQ stats are deliberately manipulated.

    The IQ score advantage China has over the West is true.

    The problem for the Chinese is that Europeans still produce the overwhelming majority of geniuses despite their edge. Without geniuses there’s little point in your race having relatively more people with IQs over 160 if a Newton, Mozart, da Vinci, or Gauss isn’t occasionally generated from it.

    It seems scientific breakthroughs are the result of genetically based psychological traits that are not detected by standard IQ tests, and that the European races have have higher frequencies of whatever set of mental traits influence genius but are not captured by standardized testing.

    I’ve heard it said that bright Chinese students educated in the liberal west tend to be more creative than their home-educated peers, who learn in a more authoritarian and regimented environment that actively discourages original thinking.

    I think, and anecdotally have seen in America, it is the reverse – second and third generation Chinese students will sink into mediocrity when free of Asian “cram” culture.

    Japanese Americans have limited intellectual accomplishments in America despite Japanese in Japan being widely considered to be the most talented Northeast Asian race. I don’t see why Chinese will excel when Japanese fell into a nondescript societal role.

  3. There are two other possibilities I’ve heard;
    Standard deviation is different (so the west has more geniuses)
    The West is less clannish (so geniuses are more likely to cooperate with each other and pool their skills)

  4. Standard deviation is different (so the west has more geniuses)

    According to Charles Murray, Asians and Europeans have the same Standard Deviation of 16.6.

    The West is less clannish (so geniuses are more likely to cooperate with each other and pool their skills)

    I’ve never heard of the smartest Chinese philosophers having difficulty socializing or working together with similarly intelligent Chinese.

    If this was ever a problem, which I don’t see hard evidence for, it should not be one anymore with cultural exchanges between Eastern and Western universities. Yet Europeans still produce more geniuses across the board.

  5. Just came across your blog.

    Some of your points have merit, but it’s fairly obvious you’re coming from a background blind to eastern history.

    Eastern scholars suffer from coordination problems related to fears of ‘weaponizing dogma’ or whatever terms you want to put it in. Viewpoints are deliberately suppressed because their cultural canon is much more aware that the squeaky wheel will get the grease. The west has never hit hard malthusian limits until recently, but it was one of the first administrative problems the ‘relatively’ more peaceful/stable east experienced. My proof of peacefulness is in their inherent murder/inter-tribal warfare rate, which was low enough that they quickly became the main population centers in the world.

    The other major factor is the structure of their financial institutions, none of which even remotely pretend to be free. Capitalist industrial policy=/=free market investment or market information. Institutions develop tech in-house because of long profit horizons, low interest rates, etc. Insitutions are rewarded by central policy for accomplishing their task, but are not forced to share discoveries.

    The problem with western writers is that they think they can see the entirety of eastern thought by scanning a huffpost article. Neorxn thought is almost impossible to come across in print. It’s similar in the east. The elites hide their thoughts and keep their cards close to their chest. The difference is their ‘neorxners’ occupy various high seats of power, so have even less incentive to try and explain it to the masses. Keeping quiet means that it takes time for people to ‘wise up’ and find a sensible basis for coordination. We’re providing this for China better than they could likely do for themselves.

  6. Welcome.

    Eastern scholars suffer from coordination problems related to fears of ‘weaponizing dogma’ or whatever terms you want to put it in. Viewpoints are deliberately suppressed because their cultural canon is much more aware that the squeaky wheel will get the grease.

    But there is no dogmatic threat to Eastern philosophy from science and high art. No Chinese Emperor would have felt threatened by the mathematics of Archimedes. If anything they would have found a Chinese Archimedes to come in handy at designing weapons to fight off the Mongols.

    Similarly, a Chinese Beethoven would have been paid handsomely in the Imperial Court without any official fearing a symphony might obstruct the harmonious functioning of the civil service.

    Yet with science and art posing no threat to their dogmas the East never produced a Beethoven or Archimedes or Newton, or Euler, etc.

    The west has never hit hard malthusian limits until recently, but it was one of the first administrative problems the ‘relatively’ more peaceful/stable east experienced. My proof of peacefulness is in their inherent murder/inter-tribal warfare rate, which was low enough that they quickly became the main population centers in the world.

    I’m not sure population indicates anything. Ancient Rome at its zenith governed a quarter of humanity. Afterwards, Western Europe’s population levels were usually comparable to East Asia in size.

    The other major factor is the structure of their financial institutions, none of which even remotely pretend to be free. Capitalist industrial policy=/=free market investment or market information. Institutions develop tech in-house because of long profit horizons, low interest rates, etc.

    Capitalistic Industrial Policy does require individual investors to base their actions on market information because, unlike a pure Socialist economy, central planners would not be making all the decisions for private actors. In a crony capitalist system as China practices, businesses are left alone to act on market signals as they see fit as long as political actors get a cut of their profits; they don’t object to government policy; and, if their sector is important enough, they don’t fail so badly as to prompt a state takeover.

    The problem with western writers is that they think they can see the entirety of eastern thought by scanning a huffpost article. Neorxn thought is almost impossible to come across in print. It’s similar in the east. The elites hide their thoughts and keep their cards close to their chest.

    Quite the contrary – Huffpo would be the first place to list Chinese geniuses so as to downplay European accomplishments; however incompetent and clumsy Leftists would be sure to make that argument. The fact that they can’t find any Eastern geniuses that hold a candle to European geniuses is proof the former barely exist.

    The elites hide their thoughts and keep their cards close to their chest. The difference is their ‘neorxners’ occupy various high seats of power, so have even less incentive to try and explain it to the masses.

    Again, no reason to keep a Gauss or Michelangelo hidden from the masses. Philosophers possibly, but not scientists or great artists.

    The reasons for East Asian underperformance at producing geniuses are primarily genetic ones; not opportunities which they’ve had many of over a span of thousands of years.

  7. I would agree with you in that the lack of an eastern VonNeuman is probably primarily due to genetic reasons. Low hanging fruit below quantum mechanics, I remain unconvinced.

    Just a few things. Many chinese ‘archimedes’ were in fact punished in court. After hard malthusian limits begin to be approached, all conflict quickly turns into zero sum games. The absolute ruthless efficiency of the Chinese cultural/eugenic regime left little room for chaotic information discovery. Profit was only derived from efficient utilization of peasant labor, and the fnargl key, of whatever sort you care to imagine it, was held firmly in the reigns of top ideologues. Any competing ideas, no matter how useful, represented diametrically opposed interests to the ruling party.

    Eastern thought more generally places value on something closer to the valuation of eugenic outcomes. It’s bred into their bones. Europeans had room to conquer, re-conquer each other, etc, leading to wars that killed excess males, which maintained ‘martial truth’ telling structures out of necessity. We see that as soon as malthusian limits in europe were reached, this truth telling enterprise collapsed into morality spirals. Chinese political machines are designed to entrench one single morality/schelling point and stop the spiral, and their traditional philosophy discusses in depth issues which even a lot of neoreactionaries struggle with.

    I am simply warning you not to write off east asians. Most westerners don’t even understand western epistemology, let alone eastern. Many neorxers are making a mess of it and falling into simple liberal traps. Without being able to read an east-asian language I’d caution feeling confidently well read in terms of eastern thought: again, what exactly is the source you’re relying on? Why would you trust that single source any more than you would concerning other issues? Is huffpo going to champion the chinese geniuses working on eugenics tech? I doubt it.

    I like the rest of what I’m seeing

  8. Many chinese ‘archimedes’ were in fact punished in court. After hard malthusian limits begin to be approached, all conflict quickly turns into zero sum games. The absolute ruthless efficiency of the Chinese cultural/eugenic regime left little room for chaotic information discovery. Profit was only derived from efficient utilization of peasant labor, and the fnargl key, of whatever sort you care to imagine it, was held firmly in the reigns of top ideologues. Any competing ideas, no matter how useful, represented diametrically opposed interests to the ruling party.

    Interesting. But how consistently has this Sino-Malthusian cuisinart been mulching through original thinking Chinamen? Over thousands of years I would assume one of them would escape the pot to produce something unique.

    I am simply warning you not to write off east asians. Most westerners don’t even understand western epistemology, let alone eastern. Many neorxers are making a mess of it and falling into simple liberal traps.

    This is well and true, but there is a tendency to overestimate them.

    As for neoreactionaries, at least those in the United States, I have a quite low opinion of them generally and fully expect to watch them for some time to come often trip over themselves, before they can reach liberal traps, on every major topic.

    Why would you trust that single source any more than you would concerning other issues? Is huffpo going to champion the chinese geniuses working on eugenics tech? I doubt it.

    In their lists of the most influential men in history Charles Murray and Michael H. Hart have themselves noted how few trail blazing East Asians made it to the top ranks of intellectual endeavors. Or, at least, they were not to find them.

    I like the rest of what I’m seeing

    And we are pleased to count you as an observer.

  9. I think Greg Cochran once mentioned that the Chinese were more advanced in technology than the Romans were. Others have made that claim as well, though I don’t know enough about China or the history of technology to evaluate these sorts of things.

    https://web.archive.org/web/20110813170529/http://classics.lss.wisc.edu/~bbpowell/web/china.htm

    The contributions of the Han weigh enormously into the accomplishment of civilization, though are almost unknown, even to the Chinese themselves, who think of their great contributions as merely “The Four Inventions:” gunpowder, the compass, paper, and printing. But Joseph Needham of Cambridge University, who died in 1995, the greatest sinologist of his generation, spent his long life assembling evidence for the other extraordinary Chinese achievements in science and technology, published in his monumental Science and Civilization in China, of which nine volumes and several supplements have appeared. According to Needham’s work, the Han also invented the row cultivation of crops, the iron plow, and the horse collar, which transformed European agriculture when it came West in 700 A.D., 1,000 years after its invention in China. They invented the seed-drill, cast iron, and discovered how to make steel from cast iron. They invented the double-acting piston bellows, the crank handle, deep drilling for natural gas, the belt drive, water power, the suspension bridge, the essentials of the steam engine, the segmental arch bridge, lacquer, strong beer, petroleum and natural gas as fuel, the wheelbarrow, sliding calipers, and the fishing reel. The Chinese invention of the stirrup revolutionized warfare when it reached Europe in the 5th century A.D. and made possible the heavily armed knight, the crusades, and medieval romance. Of course the Chinese invented porcelain, a high-fired special clay–sometimes translucent–which rings when struck, always the most valued ceramic in the world. The Chinese invented the umbrella, biological pest control, matches, and chess, though most think the game came from India. They invented brandy and whiskey (which we could never seem to find), the mechanical clock, and systems of movable type seven hundred years before Gutenberg. They invented playing-cards and paper money, the spinning-wheel, the decimal system, the kite, and first experimented with manned flight with kites, made the first relief maps and invented the rudder. The Chinese first found a place for zero, invented negative numbers, and learned how to extract higher roots. They first worked with decimal fractions, used algebra in geometry, refined the value of pi, and defined “Pascal’s” triangle of binomial coefficients. The paddle-wheel boat is a Chinese invention too, as is land sailing, the canal pound-lock, batten sails and staggered masts, multiple masts, leeboards, and watertight compartments in ships. Already in the Shang dynasty (1800-1200 B.C.) the Chinese had invented the large tuned bell and tuned drums. Daoist priests discovered hermetically sealed research laboratories and first understood musical timbre and equal temperament in music (how to make the circle of fifths correspond with the octave, so that music can be modulated from key to key). In warfare the Chinese remained for long transcendent, inventing poison gas, smoke bombs, tear gas, the crossbow, flame-throwers, flares, grenades, metal cased bombs, land and sea-mines, and the rocket, both single and multistage. They invented the fire stick and the first true gun. The Chinese first understood how to diagnose diabetes through urine analysis and described the circulation of the blood 1,800 years before it was understood in the West. The Chinese discovered the solar wind, made the first Mercator map-projection, and recognized sunspots as solar phenomena. They understood circadian rhythms in the human body in the 2nd century B.C., invented the helicopter rotor and propeller, and the seismograph, and described the first law of motion 2,000 years before Newton. Only a European could discover and explain to Chinese their own past, because in China the past is not made by men striving for perfection, but is a moral pageant illustrating the universal state’s approach to and decline from heavenly favor. In China there has never been, and can never be, a scientific historiography.

  10. Thanks Bob.

    Roman and Chinese technology were more or less comparable to each other. In fields where one of the two Empires held an advantage over the other, their advantage lay in scientific areas that satisfied a need particular to their Empire but was less pressing in the other.

    Greco-Roman art, literature, and philosophy, however, outclass China’s.

    Most of the Chinese inventions mentioned in the article were modest breakthroughs but still not comparable to Europe’s accomplishments.

  11. I think those inventions mentioned in the article are from pre-modern times. Do you mean they’re not comparable to modern European inventions or pre-modern ones?

  12. I think those inventions mentioned in the article are from pre-modern times.

    I mean they are not impressive compared to what China should have achieved.

    Many of them were invented by the Chinese during the European Dark Ages. Remember that Europe during this time had suffered a great loss in knowledge compared to what was possessed by the Romans.

    The Chinese had no such loss of knowledge, but they could only make modest breakthroughs while Europe was, in many respects, behind the East technologically from the 6th century to about the 12th or 13th centuries, perhaps a century or two later.

    When Europe did catch up in the Medieval Ages, Europe then went on a streak of major breakthroughs that left China in the dust ever since.

    Considering the disadvantage Europe was in for half a millennium – especially considering the fact, as I pointed out, that Europe might have achieved Industrial Age technology by the Medieval Ages if Roman knowledge had been preserved after the fall of the Empire – many of the Chinese breakthroughs listed in the article are not very impressive.

  13. I have no idea when exactly they were invented, although the article does mention pre-Dark Ages periods as well.

    I agree these inventions are not impressive now compared to modern technology, but they may have been during their time of invention. Even if we decline and our industrial age technology doesn’t advance into something better, our industrial age technology will have been impressive for its time.

  14. I agree these inventions are not impressive now compared to modern technology, but they may have been during their time of invention.

    I think even in their time contemporary Europeans would consider them moderate advances, but nothing spectacular. Btw, early grenades were apparently first invented by Greek Byzantines, not the Chinese.

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