Influence of Cultural Microevolution on China's Technological Progress

Yih-da Edward Hsieh

Most scholars agree that western civilization dominates the world’s technology and economy and has done so throughout most of the modern era. However, it was an eastern civilization that reigned as the global technology leader from as early as the fourth century as the Chinese developed items such as the compass, paper and gunpowder long before any of their western counterparts. In Paul Ehrlich’s book, Genes, Cultures, and the Human Prospect, Ehrlich speculates as to the possible reasons for China’s marked decline, despite its head start as a global leader. Part of his theory explores China’s cultural macroevolution, largely due to its geography. Secondly and possibly more convincingly, Ehrlich explores China’s cultural microevolution - that is China’s isolationist quality expedited their technological fallout. And therefore, China’s utilization, expansion, and advancement of technology were largely influenced by social and cultural beliefs.

China’s geographical isolation directed its cultural macroevolution. Bounded on the west by the Himalaya, Tian and Pamir mountain ranges, and Taklimakan desert, China was physically cut off from other centers of civilization during pre-modern history. The expansive area controlled by the Chinese contained a wide variety of flora stretching from coniferous forests in the north to tropical vegetation in the south. Consequently, China owned all necessary resources within its borders without the feasibility or need for communication and trade with other countries. In addition, China unlike Europe, did not separate into multiple states and cultures. And therefore, China did not benefit from any diffusion of ideas between societies or competition between states that would foster growth.

Although China’s isolated location discouraged expansion, communication with foreign nations was still possible. However, while they did forge some contact with the outside world, their intent for exploration did not serve any “greater” purpose beyond that of increasing the emperor’s prestige. Take the example of Admiral Zheng He, who in the early 1400s commanded the largest fleet in the world. His armada consisted of approximately 300 ships and 30000 sailors, utilizing many new maritime technologies such as central rudders and watertight compartments. He traveled to multiple countries and recent scientists even suggest that he discovered America before Magellan or Columbus. Unfortunately, Zheng’s voyages lacked any expansionist or economic motives. He mostly led “treasure ships” for the sole purpose of increasing the emperor’s visibility and recognition as the cost of each trip, and the gifts offered to foreign aristocracy, greatly outweighed the tributes collected. Thus, when the Mongolian invasions put a strain on the Chinese treasury, China immediately abandoned Zheng’s navy (Wikipedia).

Early isolation from other countries also contributed to a strong sense of cultural identity; and China’s isolationist and conservative politics were the main reasons its growth was stymied in during the second millennia. Richard Baum in Science and Culture in Contemporary China, identifies two aspects of Chinese culture that had the greatest effect on technological advancement during the pre-modern era, “cognitive formalism” and “narrow empiricism.” Cognitive formalism refers to the tendency to observe natural and social phenomena as the result of a fixed set of elements. For example, the five elements: wood, fire, earth, water, and metal, and the two forces: yin and yang, were believed to be the building blocks of every natural substance and process. This belief clearly retarded technological advance because it forced scientists to fit all phenomena into this fixed pattern. Even abstract ideas were subject to this ideology; public policy and politics were simplified into basic rules such as the “four fundamental principles” and the “ten major relationships.” Thus, while the political elite practiced this form of thought, proper scientific research was not a priority.

While China practiced this categorical cognitive formalism, Chinese science also followed an almost contradictory propensity towards narrow empiricism, which Baum describes as “a sizeable gap developed in Chinese science between theoretical concepts and empirical precepts.” An example of this paradoxical relationship is the invention of acupressure and acupuncture, which the Chinese developed solely on observation and a “metaphysical theory of biological functions.” They failed to use acupuncture to advance any practical understanding of immunology or neurology. Although the Chinese interestingly joined the concepts of metaphysical formalism of the human body and narrow empiricism, they produced none of the theoretical science necessary to question the validity of past and future discoveries.

Probably most detrimental towards China’s technological advancement is its strong interest in preserving traditional and cultural beliefs. For example, if Chinese politics is a manifestation of classical formulism, then any disagreement with said belief would indirectly threaten the integrity of China’s leaders. Such paranoia was evidenced as early as 213 BC when Emperor Qin Shi Huang persecuted Confucians, and burned all Confucians books in the Chinese State Library, in an effort to maintain the Qin dynasty (Koeller, 1999). This active suppression of dissident ideas is also evident even the modern era with the Communist Party’s monopoly on the media. Recently, a top editor of a Chinese newspaper revealed the editor-in-chief’s plans to dock reporters’ pay if government officials took issue with their stories. With a culture discouraging argument and innovation, the stagnation of China’s technology is no wonder (Pan, 2006).

While China’s geography definitely deterred officials from seeking relationships with other nation-states, it was not impossible. It is more likely that the cultural microevolution of China’s ideologies directly led to its demise as a global leader. Its formulistic principles provided answers, but no true capacity to learn. However, people in China are now opposing these traditional ideologies resulting in a revival of China as a recognized technological and economic center.

Works Cited

Baum, Richard. Science and Culture in Contemporary China: The Roots of Retarded Modernization . Asian Survey, Vol. 22, No. 12. (Dec., 1982), pp. 1166-1186.

Ehrlich, Paul. Human Natures: Genes Cultures, and the Human Prospect. Island Press, 2000, pp. 268-269

Koeller, David. 1999. The Burning of the Books. <>

Pan, Philip. Feb, 2006. The Click That Broke a Government’s Grip. Washington Post Foreign Service.


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last updated 3/14/06