A Nineteenth-Century Chinese Perspective on Western Technology

In 1895, the French poet and critic, Paul Valéry, took a stroll along the seashore with a friend from China. In Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western DominanceMichael Adas recounts the ensuing conversation:

“Reversing many of the standards by which Europeans had criticized the Chinese and other non-Western peoples for decades, Valéry’s Chinese friend declares: ‘You have neither the patience that weaves long lives, nor a feeling for the irregular, nor a sense of the fittest place for a thing, nor a knowledge of government. You exhaust yourselves by endlessly re-beginning the work of the first day.’ Westerners, he continues, worship intelligence as if it were an ‘ominpresent beast’ and place no limits on what they seek to know. The Chinese, by contrast, ‘do not wish to konw too much’ becasue they understand that ‘knowledge must not increase endlessly. If it continues to expand, it causes endless trouble, and despairs of itself. It halts, decadence sets in.'”

Adas’ footnote cites as his sources a 1970 translation of Valéry’s work by Roger Shattuck and Frederick Brown. Interestingly, the late Roger Shattuck, an accomplished literary critic, later authored Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, a fascinating study of a contrapuntal theme in Western culture.

Adas’ account continues:

“Again reversing one of the stock nineteenth-century censures of Chinese civliation, he points out that though most of the Europeans’ inventions were first devised in China, his people knew tha they should not be developed so far that they ‘spoiled the slow grandeur of our existence by disturbing the simple regularity of its course.’ The Chinese invented gunpowder but used it only for firecrackers. Despite their present humiliations and present setbacks, his people are better off ignorant than stricken with the European’s ‘disease of invention’ and their ‘debauchery of confused ideas.'”

Given recent discussions about the importance of understanding how human beings have historically adapted to new technologies, it’s good to be reminded that non-Western cultures have their own history of relating to technology.

The classic work on the history of technology and science in China is, of course, the monumental series spearheaded by the late Joseph Neeham, Science and Civilization in China.

Page from the Diamond Sutra, Tang Dynasty (868). Earliest surviving printed book according to the British Library.
Page from the Diamond Sutra, Tang Dynasty (868). Earliest surviving printed book according to the British Library.