Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Thursday, May 19, 2005

The Genius of China

I have never actually been to China although I would love to. Even as a child, I was fascinated by ancient China and its culture and heritage, much as chinoiserie so enchanted the Europeans. As I grow older and especially living in the UK, I began to realize that I really should find out more about the country my ancestors came from. Sadly I do not read Chinese (and so many people have asked me to read things for them and I have to say I can't with embarassment!) and I speak rudimentary Cantonese and some Mandarin. Nonetheless, there is a growing interest in China and I am particularly keen on the history, culture and philosophy of imperial China. Recent movies like "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "The House of Flying Daggers" has piqued that interest.

Yesterday, I stumbled across an article on the BBC website that said Chinese people were polishing jade with diamonds 2000 years before anyone else thought of using diamonds as a polish.

This reminded me of just how many great inventions and ideas the Chinese nation had come up with but which they kept mainly to themselves. As such, later Europeans inventors thought they were the first on the scene but they had been pre-dated (sometimes by millenia) by the Chinese. An amusing account is told of how the English during the heinous Opium War were using paddle-wheelers against the Chinese. When the latter brought out their own paddle-wheelers (invented by the Chinese in 418AD) the British remarked on how well the Chinese had imitated their invention!

The great tragedy of Chinese inventiveness is that they often failed to pass on records from one dynasty to another and they did not exploit it on the scale that Europeans did. As such the great ideas lapsed into obscurity or had limited reach; much like silk or tea which would have remained within China were it not for European missionaries and explorers who initially smuggled them out of China.

The book '1421' has aroused some controversy in asserting that Chinese navigators circumnavigated the globe, discovered the Americas and charted the North Pole decades before Columbus, Magellan and other European sailors. Needless to say, this would revise world history considerably and many historians have attempted to refute the findings of Gavin Menzies. The debate continues... Personally, I find the book convincing and fascinating but perhaps I am biased?!

However, one need not look to Menzies for evidence of the sheer genius of China. Joseph Needham of Cambridge University, a renowned Sinologist has researched and written volumes on the inventions of China and this has been condensed and edited by Robert Temple into a fascinating and beautifully illustrated book called "The Genius of China". Temple also asserts that these inventions influenced later European discovery of the same, although sometimes this is a little tenuous.

Among the fascinating inventions described are the iron plow, sun-spots, cast iron, the suspension bridge, essentials of steam engines, paper, the umbrella, matches, diabetes, 'Pascals' triangle, compasses, spontaneous combustion, the hexagonal structure of snowflakes, the parachute, the helicopter rotor and propeller, equal temperament in music, the crossbow, gunpowder, chemical warfare and much much more!

I think many people are generally unaware of the genius of China simply because of its remoteness and inaccessibility - much more needs to be translated for our usage. However, we also fail to recognise the sheer engineering feats of the ancient Chinese. Everyone knows the Great Wall of China but what about the Grand Canal of China? This "extends nearly ten degrees of of latitude on the globe, attaining a length of nearly 1100 miles, and achieves a summit height of 138 feet above sea level." It was complete by 1327. By comparison there were only 630 miles of canals in all of France by the end of the 18th century. The early 19th century canals of England (some of which cross the town of Skipton) were only 5 feet deep and 45 feet broad. By comparison the Grand Canal is between 10 and 30 feet deep and often 100 feet broad!

And just one more interesting fact: the Chinese are said to have distilled brandy about 500 years before Europe. Consider the fact that brandy is called shao chiu or 'burnt wine' in Chinese. This is exactly what the Dutch brandewijn means, from which the English word 'brandy' is derived. Similarly in German: branntwein...

For more, you'll simply havr to get a copy of the book mentioned above! But the reason I cite the examples above is not to say that the Chinese are superior but rather as a corrective to a rather Eurocentric world view that still predominates. It is said that history is written by the victors and certainly, the European powers defeated a corrupt and inefficient Qing dynasty. However, as China now awakes, it may be helpful to reassess our received histories and be familiar with just how China dominated the world in the past and may well do so again!


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