China 1, Britain 0
China is harnessing its ancient achievements to serve the present
EIGHT is a lucky number in China. How fortunate it was, then, that a team of more than 100 scientists was able, after three years of research, to declare that ancient Chinese had achieved no fewer than 88 scientific breakthroughs and engineering feats of global significance. Their catalogue of more than 200 pages, released in June, was hailed as a major publishing achievement.
All Chinese schoolchildren can name their country's "four great inventions": paper, printing, the compass and gunpowder. Now it appears they have a lot more homework to do. The study purports to prove that China was first with many other marvels, including the decimal system, rockets, pinhole imaging, rice and wheat cultivation, the crossbow and the stirrup.
It is no coincidence that the project, led by the prestigious Chinese Academy of Sciences, got under way a few months after Xi Jinping took over as China's leader in 2012. Mr Xi has been trying to focus public attention on the glories of China's past as a way to instil patriotism and provide a suitable historical backdrop for his campaign to fulfil "the Chinese dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation".
Mr Xi is building on a long tradition among the Communist Party's propagandists of claiming world firsts. "China invented Lassie," ran a headline in Global Times, a party-controlled newspaper, about dogs being domesticated in China 16,000 years ago (another group of scientists reckon China first did this 33,000 years ago). In 2006 official media shocked the Scots with an assertion that China invented golf a millennium ago, hundreds of years before the game took off in Scotland.
As a lover of football, Mr Xi likes drawing attention to China's pioneering of that sport, too. On a visit to Britain in 2015 he stopped at one of the country's most famous football clubs, Manchester City. There he was presented with a copy of the first rules for the modern game (drawn up by an Englishman in 1863). In return, he handed over a copper representation of a figure playing cuju, a sport similar to football invented by China 2,000 years ago. It was apparently popular both among urban youths and as a form of military fitness training. Mr Xi would like a great rejuvenation of this, too. In 2014 he announced plans to put football on the national curriculum. The aim is to make China a "first-class power" in football by 2050 (it has a long way to go).
The growing attention that China pays to its ancient achievements, real and exaggerated, contrasts with the almost total rejection of them by Mao Zedong after he seized power in 1949. In Mao's China history was not something to celebrate. A central aim of his Cultural Revolution was to attack the "four olds": customs, culture, habits and ideas. Many Chinese dynasties destroyed some glories of the previous one, but the Communists took this to new extremes. Across the country state-sponsored vandals destroyed temples, mansions, city walls, scenic sites, paintings, calligraphy and other artefacts.
That began to change after Mao died in 1976. Now Mr Xi claims that Chinese civilisation "has developed in an unbroken line from ancient to modern times". He glosses over not just the chaos and destruction of the Mao era but the long centuries when the geographical area now called China was divided into many parts, and even run by foreign powers (Manchu and Mongol).
The party also wants to use ancient prowess to boost China's image abroad and to counter widespread (and often unfair) impressions in the West that the country is better at copying others' ideas than coming up with its own. The four great inventions were one of the main themes at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008, an event that China saw as its global coming-out party after decades of being treated with suspicion and contempt by foreign powers.
Envy of the West's rapid gains in technology since the 19th century has been a catalyst of Chinese nationalism for over 100 years. It fuels a cultural competitiveness in China that turns ancient history into a battleground. This was evident in China's prickly response to a recent documentary made by the BBC and National Geographic, which suggested that China's famous terracotta warriors in Xi'an showed Greek influence. Some people interpreted this as a slight. One Chinese archaeologist dismissed the theory as "dishonest" and having "no basis"; another said that foreign hands could not have sculpted the figures because "no Greek names" were inscribed on their backs. Likewise in 2008 Boris Johnson, then mayor of London, was derided for saying that table tennis originated not in China but on Victorian dining tables and was known as whiff-whaff.
Just a slight inconsistency
The publication of the 88 achievements, however, has drawn attention again to an enduring mystery: why, after a long record of remarkable attainment in technology, did Chinese innovations largely cease for the 500 years or so leading up to the collapse of the last imperial dynasty in 1911? As state media observed, few of the inventions on the new list belong to this period. This puzzle is often referred to as the "Needham question", after a British scientist and Sinologist, Joseph Needham. (It was he, in his study of China's ancient science in the 1950s, who first identified the four great inventions--before then most people thought they had emerged in the West.) A member of the team that produced the list said the question deserved "deep reflection" and would be a topic of future research.
Mr Xi skates over this. He lauds Zheng He, a eunuch who launched maritime voyages from China across the Indian Ocean from 1405, as one of China's great innovators--an early proponent of a vision of China that Mr Xi would like to recreate: prosperous, outward-looking and technologically advanced (the admiral's massive boat is number 88 on the list). Yet he fails to point out that soon after Zheng He's explorations China turned inward, beginning its half-millennium of stagnation.
In this 15th-century turning point, reformists in China see an obvious answer to Needham's question: isolation from the rest of the world is bad for innovation. They take heart in China's efforts since the 1970s to re-engage with the West, but lament the barriers that remain. With luck, it will not take 100 state-sponsored Chinese scientists another three years to reach the same conclusion.