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Chapter Twelve


"A Chinese novel," I said. "That must be rather curious." "Not as curious as one might be tempted to think," replied Goethe. "These people think and feel much as we do, and one soon realizes that one is like them." --Goethe's conversations with Eckermann, January 31, 1827


Western scholars have spent a lot of time puzzling over the East. Why, they ask, was it Europe, not Asia, that launched the industrial revolution? How could China and India and the Near East—all homelands of great ancient empires—be so outclassed, technologically and economically, during the past half-millennium?

Sometimes the answers have focused on spiritual matters. Max Weber touted Europe's "Protestant work ethic" and said India and China had been stymied by "magical traditionalism." Sometimes the answers have focused on politics. According to the theory of "Oriental Despotism," Asian civilizations, from Mesopotamia to China, were often built around large irrigation systems, which invited centralized bureaucratic control, leading to top-heavy governance that continued to stifle initiative for millennia.

But, whatever the various explanations for the pace of Asian development, their upshot tends to be that Asian cultures are strange things. The eminent economic historian David Landes, pondering China's erratic, seemingly futile pattern of technological ups and downs ("almost as though the society were held down by a silk ceiling"), declared it simply "weird."

Of course, weirdness is a relative thing. From the standpoint of nineteenth-century Asia, the industrial revolution, as heralded by menacing European ships, may have seemed weird. And since there were more Asians than Europeans, maybe this is the perspective that should prevail: maybe what needs explaining is not the apparent stagnation of Asia, but rather the oddly explosive advance of Europe.

This, at least, is a frequently drawn conclusion. Etienne Balazs, after pondering China's sluggishness, suggested that the series of events which led to capitalism in Europe and thus "set in motion the industrialization of the entire world"—may have been "a freak of fortune, one of history's privileged occasions, in this case granted solely to that tiny promontory of Asia, Europe." In much the same spirit, E. L. Jones titled his influential study of economic history The European Miracle. As little Europe steamed along the highway of industrial progress, wrote Jones, the bulk of the Eurasian landmass was heading into "a demographic cul-de-sac"; had modernity not been imposed on China, India, and the Ottoman Empire, they would have faced "stagnation at the best, or Malthusian crisis at the worst." As miraculous as Europe's economic revolution was, "comparable development in Asia would have been supermiraculous."

Is that true? Does a look at Asian culture and history reveal indefinite inertia, suggesting that the industrial revolution was a fluke? Or does it show us, rather, that the supposedly inscrutable Orient is actually quite like the Occident—prone to harness new technologies and follow them to deeper and vaster social complexity?


Landes spent part of his magnum opus The Wealth and Poverty of Nations trying to figure out why the westernmost of Oriental cultures, the Islamic civilization of the Middle Ages, had not been destined for industrial greatness. His answer, in part: short time horizons. Whereas Europe's pragmatic medieval Christians coolly pursued "continuing, sustainable profit," the rampaging Muslims were propelled by "fighting zeal" and paused "only for an occasional digestion of conquest and booty."

It's true that many western Europeans pursued profit smartly. In the previous chapter, we saw how some basic elements of capitalism coalesced in Europe during the late Middle Ages—notably the justly celebrated contratto di commenda, used to pool capital for trade.

But the idea of the commenda may well have come from the Islamic world. Before the commenda appeared in Italy in the tenth century, the very same tool, under another name, was used by Muslims as they turned Baghdad and Basra into centers of world commerce, trading goods ranging from paper and ink to panther skins and ostriches. As early as the late eighth century, texts of the Hanafite school, one of four Islamic legal traditions, discuss the commenda—and the business partnership, another capital-pooling tool. (At about the same time, checks drafted in Baghdad could be cashed in Morocco, a convenience not offered by European banks until centuries later.) Over the years, Hanafite scholars would again and again defend the legal infrastructure of finance on grounds of "the need of trade" or "the attainment of profit." In this light, Landes's simple dichotomy—that European Christians were moved by sustainable "profit," whereas those zealous Muslims were just "doing God's work"—begins to blur.

Indeed, one of Muhammad's great accomplishments, and one key to Islam's potency, was making the larger world safe for commerce. In the early seventh century, before he started preaching in Mecca, the town's main commercial lubricant was its sacred shrine, the Kabah; violence was forbidden in its vicinity, so otherwise contentious Arab tribes could meet and trade. Muhammad and his successors, metaphorically speaking, expanded that sacred realm across much of the known world. For him--as for other great leaders before and since--waging war turned out to be a way of waging peace.

Of course, during the early Islamic expansion, the war part predominated. In that sense Landes's cartoonish sketch of the Muslim mind has a kind of time-bound truth. But as the Middle Ages progressed, and the Islamic empire grew and crystallized, stretching from Spain across North Africa to Pakistan, its formative mind-set faded. With the trust barrier between distant lands now eroded by a common religion, and communication barriers penetrated by the spread of the Arabic language, this huge swath became a low-friction zone for commerce. Taxation replaced booty as the empire's financial base.

The Muslims, as people are wont to do, retained and refined information technologies that further reduced the friction, including some early algorithms of capitalism, ranging from the commenda to basic accounting. (Speaking of algorithms: the word "algorithm" comes from the name of the ninth-century Islamic astronomer and mathematician al-Khwarizmi, who also popularized the term al jabr, or algebra.) Though tracing the path of medieval memes is tricky, some of these algorithms seem to have reached Europe in time to help usher in the High Middle Ages. It is probably no coincidence that the hotbed of medieval Europe's inchoate capitalism was Italy, with its Mediterranean exposure to Islamic culture.


Meanwhile, at the other end of Asia, the Chinese were also adept at greasing the wheels of commerce. By the ninth century, if not earlier, tea merchants were using "flying money"-the rough equivalent of traveler's checks-that spared them the risk and burden of lugging copper coins. Eventually, the merchants who issued the checks realized that they could invest some of the deposited money. Thus did the idea of banking dawn on China before it dawned on Europe.

There were other ways to raise capital in China during the European Middle Ages. As many as sixty merchants might together finance the construction of a fleet of ships,then own them collectively. People of more modest means invested in trade expeditions via merchants they knew.

Shipping was vital not just to overseas trade but to commerce within China, thanks to a thick network of rivers and canals that featured fancy locks for handling inclines. Marco Polo, hailing from thirteenth-century Venice, was no stranger to boats, but even he was floored by the traffic on the Yangtze River around the city of I-ching. "I give you my word that I have seen in this city fully five thousand ships at once, all afloat on this river." Actually, Marco Polo's word and a dollar fifty will get you a ride on the subway; he is notorious for exaggeration. But even a more sober source, the historian Jacques Gernet, says that China's internal network of waterways, 50,000 kilometers long, was "traversed by the biggest and most various collection of boats that the world had ever seen."

Farmers shipped fruits and vegetables to urban markets, harvested lumber for shipbuilding, made salable tools, pressed oils for medicines and hair creams. By the late Middle Ages, Chinese peasants, writes the historian Mark Elvin, were "adaptable, rational, profit-oriented, petty entrepreneurs." They don't seem to have found their alleged "magical traditionalism" stultifying. With or without a Protestant work ethic, they worked.

In China, as in Europe, merchants sensed their common interest and formed associations. They never lobbied for commercial freedom as effectively as their western counterparts; Chinese cities didn't become self-governing. But the Sung government, which assumed power in the tenth century, did grasp the value of freer markets, and changed its modus operandi. Rather than controlling prices and getting its share of the pie via requisitioned labor, it let goods flow freely and got its share via sales taxes. Like European leaders and Islamic leaders, Chinese leaders saw the downside of a too-heavy hand.

In China during the Middle Ages, as usual with market economies, the virtues of size showed themselves. There were silk factories with 500 looms and iron factories employing thousands. Near the close of the eleventh century, China was producing 150,000 tons of iron a year, an output that Europe as a whole wouldn't match until 1700.

One driver of economic, technological, and scientific advance was printing. China invented paper-and had both wood block printing and movable type before they showed up in the west. They were used largely to spread practical knowledge. Hence such books as Pictures and Poems on Husbandry and Weaving and Mathematics for Daily Use. Some books came from private publishers, but many had an official air, such as the five-volume Remedies from the Board of Harmonious Pharmaceutics. Book titles of the age suggest the dawning of a scientific mind-set and science's natural drift toward specialty: Treatise on Citrus Fruit, say, or Manual of Crabs.

Whether China of the Middle Ages showed much real impetus toward modern science is still debated. Some say no, insisting that its expertise reached no further than technology. In truth, though, science and technology are inseparable, in two senses. First, because an understanding of the laws of the universe is always at least implicit in technology. (Francis Bacon said, "Nature to be commanded must be obeyed.") Second, because, beyond a certain level of technology, the understanding tends to become explicit. Arguably the most profound scientific truth is the second law of thermodynamics, which notes the inexorability of universal chaos and thus (as we'll see in part II) defines the current against which organic evolution and cultural evolution both swim. The earliest statement of the second law came in the nineteenth century from the Frenchman Sadi Carnot, who described himself as a "constructor of steam engines," the vocation that indeed had led him to see the gist of the second law.

By the same token, China's invention of the magnetic compass brought the articulation of laws of polarity and magnetic induction long before these things were discussed in Europe. China of the fourteenth century, Elvin believes, was on the "threshold of systematic experimental investigation of nature."

With or without formal science, China was the technological center of the world. The Chinese invented gunpowder, and by 1232 an iron bomb known as "Heaven-shaking thunder" was deciding the outcome of battles. By the early 13005, a water-powered, thirty-two-spindle spinning machine could produce 130 pounds of thread a day, making it "several times cheaper than the women workers it replaces," as one observer noted. It was as advanced as any such machine that Europe would see for more than 300 years.

All told, China's technological base during the Middle Ages was a harbinger of modernity. Printing! The magnetic compass! Bombs! Hair cream!


There was a time, early this century, when medieval Asia's technological feats were scarcely acknowledged by western historians, and so posed no threat to the standard view of the Orient as constitutionally sedate. But since mid-century, thanks partly to Joseph Needham's landmark Science and Civilization in China, such extreme Eurocentricism has waned. Today the only reason to argue with Jacques Gernet's verdict—that "the two great civilizations of the 11th to 13th centuries were incontestably those of China and Islam"—would be to quibble over whether Islam, which fell into disarray in the tenth century, really deserves equal billing. Mark Elvin, marveling at the Chinese water-powered spinning machine, has written, "if the line of advance which it represented had been followed a little further then medieval China would have had a true industrial revolution in the production of textiles over four hundred years before the West."

Faced with the spectacle of a world-dominant China in the late Middle Ages, Europe's more persistent cheerleaders have turned it to their advantage. Now that we know how close China came to having its own industrial revolution, its failure to actually have one is all the more inexcusable! So China, once deemed an earnest but dim-witted student, is reclassified as a bright underachiever, but still gets a failing grade. "The mystery lies in China's failure to realize its potential," Landes declares.

Actually, if you look at China after its "brink of greatness" period, the failure to industrialize doesn't look all that mysterious. It is just another example of the caprice of history-the way political decisions and other flukes can alter the course of events for decades or even centuries without reversing the basic direction of cultural evolution as played out globally over the millennia. Before examining the particular roll of the dice that seems to have spelled future stagnation for China, let's briefly examine its precursor: the barbarian onslaught that shook China in the late Middle Ages. This incursion illustrates some of our favorite barbarian themes.

Click here for part II of this chapter.

An excerpt from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, By Robert Wright, published by Pantheon Books. Copyright 2000 by Robert Wright. Other excerpts are available at