Don't live off the "Four Great Inventions" any more
- Source: The Global Times
- [22:26 April 22 2009]
Many Chinese people have a sense of cultural superiority. They always speak of the achievements of Chinese civilization with great pride. One of their favorite topics is "the four great inventions of ancient China,"which were gunpowder, papermaking, printing and the compass. These inventions contributed significantly to the development of society and are seen as a symbol of the brilliance of the Chinese people. However, the story of the four inventions represents a popular misconception about Chinese civilization.
First of all, there were numerous other ancient Chinese inventions equal to or greater than the legendary four. Dr. Joseph Needham, a world-renowned historian of science and technology, listed 26 technologies invented by the Chinese that were passed on to the West.
A Chinese scholar recently said that 24 inventions in particular represented the achievements of ancient China's science and technology. Among them, rice planting, silk, decimal place-value charts, lacquer, porcelain, paper, printing, tea, gunpowder, fire arrows and the compass had a tremendous impact on the development of global civilization.
Second, the very concept of " the four great inventions"was imported from the West. The first person who recognized these Chinese inventions was Francis Bacon. He held that printing, gunpowder, and the compass reshaped the state of academia, warfare and navigation. Later, the missionary and Sinologist Joseph Edkins added the fourth great invention, papermaking, to the list. The concept of "the four great inventions" was used to evaluate the influence of these inventions on Western civilization.
Third, although the ancient Chinese people created these four inventions, they did not make good use them. It was Westerners who fully utilized them and changed the world. For instance, the compass did not exert a great influence on the development of Chinese society, though it did offer convenience for Zheng He when he traveled to the Western ocean. But while the compass revolutionized Western society, the invention of gunpowder brought China fireworks. Westerners used gunpowder to create weapons technology they then used to conquer the entire world.
Fourth, it is true that the Chinese people invented at least 24 great things. But none of them was invented after the founding of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). That is to say, we have not had any important, original inventions since 1644. We can be very proud of our ancestors, but not ourselves. We shouldn't live off the four great inventions any more. We must strive to create new great inventions, for which we will be remembered by future generations.
The author is a Shenyang-based scholar. The article was translated by Ao Lin.
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