The Unz Review - Mobile
A Collection of Interesting, Important, and Controversial Perspectives Largely Excluded from the American Mainstream Media
Email This Page to Someone

 Remember My Information



=>
Publications Filter?
AKarlin.com
Nothing found
 TeasersRussian Reaction Blog
/
Chinese History

Bookmark Toggle AllToCAdd to LibraryRemove from Library • BShow CommentNext New CommentNext New Reply
🔊 Listen RSS

In Search of Wealth and Power by Benjamin Schwartz, published in 1964. Rating: 4/5.

in-search-of-wealth-and-power-benjamin-schwartz

In Search of Wealth and Power is a very dense but richly rewarding tome by Benjamin Schwartz, a noted China scholar. He focuses on the life of the translator Yan Fu to illustrate the culture clashes that arose when traditional Chinese civilization came into contact with Western philosophies.

Yan Fu was a translator and thinker who was one of the first Chinese to engage with Western thought at a deep level. He rejected contemporary thinkers like Zhang Zhidong, who aimed to integrate Western technics onto Chinese cultural foundations – not for him was the slogan “Chinese learning for fundamental principles and Western learning for practical application.” Nor was he a Marxist, to consider society as a mere superstructure to underlying economic realities. Instead, Yan Fu emphasized that if anything there was “more materialism (in the ethical sense)” among Chinese than in the West, whose own material foundations were built on innovative legal, political, and spiritual foundations. In a nutshell, the purpose of Yan Fu’s lifework was to foster the evolutionary growth of these Western qualities, many of them quite intangible, so as to “enrich the state and strengthen the army.” Yet in so doing this through his translations and commentary he ran into many paradoxes, and grew disillusioned with Western thought in the last decade of his life – as did admittedly many Western intellectuals as well. At the end he (re)turned to a form of Taoist mysticism.

At the start it is important to note that Yan Fu was intimately acquainted with all major strands of the Chinese philosophical tradition. Confucianism had been the bedrock of the Chinese state since the Qin dynasty. It stressed the importance of filial piety, of the ruler setting a virtuous example of the people, and of keeping laws and regulations light; however, Yan Fu and numerous other members of the Chinese intelligentsia during that time were coming to see it as a regressive influence keeping China backward. For his own part Yan Fu has little patience with it, beyond keeping its few good parts – mostly those to do with family organization – and extending it to the masses, the armies and factories (much as he perceived Christianity to have laid the groundwork for English public spirit despite its purported theological errors).

The other strand that he drew on is Legalism, a far more practical doctrine that contained the Chinese version of balance of power theory and Machievallian ideas about the state. Furthermore, Schwartz writes, “while the immediate aims of the Legalists may be narrowly fiscal, the germ of a notion of economic development is latent within this mode of thought.”

Finally, there was Taoism; although the least practical of the three, Yan Fu was extremely influenced by it. In its attribution of a deep and incomprehensible driving force he found deep parallels with the monist Western philosophers, as well as a metaphysical lattice to hold together the evolutionary process and the “ten thousand things”. It did not proscribe a frozen feudal order like old-school Confucianism, and it was the polar opposite of the crass materialism of Legalism. As such, Yan Fu considered it the ultimate anchor on which Western philosophical concepts could be moored, even going so far as to argue proto-democratic tendencies in the works of Zhuangzi.

Of course while finding a balance between Confucianism, Legalism, and Taoism seems to be hard enough, meeting the challenge of Western ideas is all the more so. Possible consequences include the very extinction of certain Chinese intellectual traditions, for whereas “one could conceive of wealth and power as an outer rampart for the inner sanctum of essential Confucian values and institutions only so long as the requirements of one were not incompatible with the demands of the other.” But what if it was impossible to build the new fort, bristling with modern weapons, without also “destroying the sanctum”?

This dilemma reflects one universal to all non-Western conservatives who realize their country’s backwardness. For instance, Nikolai Trubetzkoy would lay out precisely this dilemma in his seminal 1918 tract Europe and Mankind, where he noted that whereas Romano-Germanic nations could “move along a well-worn path, looking neither to the right nor left and concentrating its efforts on the coordination of elements from a single culture” and the rest of the world had to manage the culture clash of its own traditions with these European imports. Staying still is not an option because of the West’s military threat; on the other hand, the permanent culture clash involved in copying the West, the so-called “duel logique”, expends precious energy and reinforces the permanent gap between the Romano-Germanic world and the country attempting to modernize. Eventually the situation becomes desperate and the lagging country attempts a “long leap”, covering in a few years what took decades or centuries of organic development in the original countries. But the consequences of these leaps tend to be terrible, according to Trubetzkoy, because it is followed by “a period of apparent (from the European standpoint) stagnation, when it is necessary… to coordinate the results achieved by a leap in a particular area with other elements of the culture.”

Yan Fu stares this dilemma straight in the face. On the one hand, it is necessary to modernize, and – he believes – modernization has to be full-spectrum, and not in just the narrow military sense that he senses will lead to ruin, as with Peter’s Russia. He is a proponent of Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism, and applying biological laws to that of society; individuals and nations are evolving, competing, progressing… unfortunately, the process hadn’t taken off in China. So paradoxically, China had to kick-start it via Great Men and legislators, a hopeless task according to at least two of Yan Fu’s Western philosophers – the Master himself, for Spencer believed that social evolution was a natural process that was outside human influence; and Montesquieu, who held that riverine civilizations located on great plains have a natural tendency towards despotism. No wonder then that Yan Fu cardinally reinterpreted Spencer to create a kind of “Evolution and Ethics with Chinese Characteristics,” and vigorously argued against Montesquieu’s crude geographic determinism and understandable lack of foreknowledge about technological changes that would shrink the world and make it more generally conductive for the evolution of democracies. It is stressed throughout the book that Yan Fu’s commentaries on these Western philosophers, his attempts to reconcile them with contemporary Chinese realities as well as its own intellectual tradition, were every bit as significant or even more so to the intellectual atmosphere in China than the actual translations that he performed.

Personally conservative and patriarchal; supporter of a strong state, but also one with liberal elements and public spirit – one gets the impression that disillusioned as he was by the 1910’s, Yan Fu would have had his faith restored by Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew. The state there was not a full democracy, but a managed democracy that maintains fairly strict social mores under a liberal economic environment. He would not have had too many issues with Taiwan either, where a dictator governed until the 1980’s, when – as he might see it – the people had become advanced enough to run the country themselves. As a man who loathed the idea of sudden, jolting changes he would have been aghast at the Maoist model, which developed by Trubetzkoy’s playbook: Importation of a Western ideology (Marxism) in one of its more extreme forms, and its attempted marriage to Chinese cultural traditions (some, like Confucianism, were repressed; others, like Legalism, were not, as Mao indeed was an admirer of Shang Yang’s methods); attempts to “leap forwards” (literally so, in 1959-62); a period of cultural clashes (Cultural Revolution 1966-76) and relative stagnation.

Even so, in a way the Communist Party did introduce important elements of Western thought and habits. There was a real emphasis on development, even if in practice was very inefficient until the late 1970’s. Concepts such as subsistence as the ideal were decisively rejected (in theory if not quite in practice). And one can even argue that the Communists introduced a kind of public spirit with the economic system of rural collective farms and urban danwei system and Maoist songs such as Comrade in Arms and The East is Red (equivalent in some ways to choral songs under Christian civilization). However this sense of community broke up pretty quickly after the 1970’s, people no longer call each other 同志, which formerly meant comrade but now denotes homosexuals in popular parlance, but things such as corruption and greed are also believed to have increased under the new capitalist order. Ironically however a similar process took place in the West, e.g. community life and public spirit is held to have declined since the 1960’s on most metrics both statistical (e.g. wealth inequality, incarceration rate, crime rate, etc) and intangible. So in a sense China and the US are converging towards being richer, more atomized societies. Perhaps Yan Fu would have seen this as a vindication of Spencer’s original vision after all, though then again, it’s not like the “power” part of “wealth and power” is exactly irrelevant today what with an incipient naval race between the US and China in the West Pacific.

What this book exudes in academic dryness it easily makes up in lucidity and erudition. (This is a 1960s Harvard man, writing well before it became widely acceptable to substitute genuine research with meaningless PoMo-babble). Unfortunately the Wade-Giles system is used throughout, but again that’s standard for that time. This won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, unlike Arthur H. Smith’s Chinese Characteristics, but definitely recommended for those who wish to delve into modern Chinese intellectual history, China’s “encounter” with the West more general, and the interplay of traditional Chinese philosophies with interloping Western ideas.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
🔊 Listen RSS

Chinese Characteristics by Arthur Henderson Smith, published in 1894. It is available free here. Rating: 5/5.

chinese-characteristics-arthur-h-smith-intellectual-turbidity

In rich and evocative prose reminiscent of De Tocqueville’s writings on America, Arthur H. Smith lays out what he sees as the core features of the Chinese character and his values. The tone is bold and fearless, making sweeping generalizations and brusque judgments that many today will dismiss as insensitive or “Orientalist,” if not downright racist. I will say from the outset that this is ahistorical and frankly, misses the point. Humans try to understand the world through simplified models, and stereotypes are an intractable part of this process. This was especially true in Smith’s time, when more objective data, e.g. statistical, was severely lacking in China. Thus, while he carefully acknowledges that “these papers are not meant to be generalizations for a whole Empire”, he nonetheless argues that deriving Chinese characteristics by “recording great numbers of incidents,” especially “extraordinary” ones, and setting down the “explanations… as given by natives of the country,” is an entirely valid and legitimate approach for a popular book on that country.

The “Chinese character” that emerges from his account forms a stark contradistinction to what we might call the “Smithian character,” a category that embraces not only the eponymous author but also reflects the values and assumptions of your archetypical fin de siècle American WASP male. The Chinese character goes by nature’s cycles, and does not have a good sense of either punctuality or even his own age; the Westerner, on the other hand, marches to the chimes of the clock. This “disregard of time” is matched by a “disregard for accuracy” – it is mentioned that the real distance of the Chinese li varies depending on terrain, the prevailing weather, etc. Likewise, the real value of the national currency varies from province to province.

Another major element covered by Smith in relation to China is “intellectual turbidity.” This might seem strange, considering that he also talks of how “all the examination halls, from the lowest to the highest, seem to be perpetually crowded”, but one which becomes much more comprehensible after noting that Smith also says that “education in China is restricted to a very narrow circle”. These observations are confirmed by the historical fact that primary enrollment was at just 4% of the eligible school-age population in China in 1900. (This characteristic, incidentally, seems to be alive well to this day, as evidenced by the immense stress that revolves around the gaokao). Nonetheless, the common folks come off as pretty stupid, and unable to grasp the essence of the questions put to them. For instance, in reply to a query about his age, one man’s answer is said to resemble a “rusty old smoothbore cannon mounted on a decrepit carriage.” Although isn’t asking such a question awkward in the first place? That said, at least we can’t fault Smith for not knowing how to throw in a good turn of phrase!

Another major part of the book concerns Chinese attitudes as regards kin, family, society, and nation. Filial piety is extremely developed; in fact, it is over-developed, to the extent that there have been cases of children willing to sacrifice themselves so as to avoid the death penalty for their criminal parents. (Not exactly a civilization with much in the way of individual responsibility). A less extreme but far more widespread effect of this is the devaluation of the worth of women. While Smith is undoubtedly a man of patriarchal views, he subscribes to the Christian idea of the spiritual equality of the sexes, and supports women’s education. These aims are harder to achieve in a society built around ancestor worship, where the prerogative to maintain the “continuum of descent” is overriding. Social sanctions, such as the ones for harboring criminals or traitors, are collective in nature, and go against the idea of personal responsibility. But it’s not all bad, at least as regards violence: “Human life is safer in a Chinese city than in an American city.” Nor are the Chinese dying out like the French:

“Contrast the apparent growth of the Chinese at any point, with the condition of the population in France, where the rate of increase is the lowest in all Europe, and where the latest returns show an absolute decrease in the number of inhabitants. Such facts have excited the gravest fears as to the future of that great country. The Chinese, on the other hand, show no more signs of race decay than the Anglo-Saxons.”

Although there is a widespread “hatred of foreigners,” – but isn’t that quite understandable, given the circumstances of late Qing China? – it does not translate into a sense of national cohesion or patriotism. In practice, it is the family (jia) which come first, and then the clans around which Chinese villages are built. (This appears to be accurate). Concubinage and soft polygamy are rife. Honesty is absent in general, though not always at the individual level. The bureaucracy is stiff, rigid, and all too frequently, corrupt. In modern parlance, we would call this a lack of “social capital.” While Smith acknowledges that Confucianism is a praiseworthy ethical system, the problem is that it is an elite ideology and does not percolate down to the masses. What China desperately needs is “righteousness,” and this can be attained “permanently, completely, only by Christian civilization.”

If there is one overriding problem with Smith’s perspective, it is HIS characteristic of consistently failing to distinguish between Chinese characteristics and undeveloped country characteristics. It was at the edge of subsistence, as repeatedly mentioned by Smith and confirmed by historical evidence; malnutrition was rife, and various infectious diseases were rife, both factors which have major depressive effects on IQ; and the typical absence of literacy can’t have helped either, as literacy is a necessary prerequisite to the development of logical and abstract reasoning. In this context, Smith’s observations that Chinese arguments “consist exclusively of predicates”, which are “attached to nothing whatever”, begin to seem eminently understandable – but on the caveat that what we are seeing is not a Chinese characteristic per se, but the perspective of a literate cosmopolitan on an illiterate peasant mentality (which he perceives as “intellectual turbidity”). Since China has now solved its malnutrition and illiteracy problems – the latest Census put the literacy rate at 97%, and its performance on international standardized tests is now very respectable – this cultural and cognitive chasm has now closed.

The influence of China’s historical backwardness is also clearly manifest as regards the lack of hygiene, the threadbare poverty, the “disregard of accuracy”, etc. Likewise, while he notes the province by province discrepancies in weights, distances, coinages, and dialects, he largely forgoes to mention that this is all in the context of a weak state that is slowly falling apart – in no small part thanks to Western intrusions. Considering the large stock of Chinese mechanical inventions during the European middle ages and China’s long pedigree as a centralized bureaucratic state, it is strange to consider that such differences could be a specifically “Chinese” characteristic. It is worth nothing that even France, despite the prior legacy of Colbert’s dirigisme, only unified its national market in the late 18th century, while linguistic unification would take an additional half a century.

Another point of criticism is that Smith conflates development with Christianity, which surely at least in part reflects his values as a missionary. Nonetheless, this criticism shouldn’t be overdone. The causes of long-term economic development were still largely unknown in the 19th century. Economics had yet to come into its own as a social science, and there was no agreement between the political economists. As such, the assumption that Christianity was a prerequisite of development was not, perhaps, an entirely unreasonable one, given that up to that point only Christian Powers had grown rich and come to rule over most of the world. And it should be stressed that Smith is no fanatic, and only forcefully makes this argument in the last chapter. He is also not averse to recognizing that in many respects, such as personal safety and filial piety, Confucian China is superior to the West.

In the end, it is up to the Chinese themselves to decide whether Smith was a laowai blowhard or someone worth listening to. For the most part they have come down on the latter assessment. The China discourse in the West a century ago was framed in the rather schizophrenic dichotomy between seeing it is a decayed civilization, about to get eaten up by its predatory neighbors, and the “yellow peril,” ready to disgorge its ravenous hordes upon the Christian world. Smith’s observations far surpassed those (admittedly very low) bars in nuance, detail, and understanding. He heavily influenced one of China’s most influential 20th century writers, Lu Xun. And it’s an undeniable fact that some of the negative characteristics he identified continue to plague China to this day, both in terms of “extraordinary incidents” – as in the recent story of a toddler who got ran over to mass indifference, as well as the more objective realm of hard cold statistics – such as the the soaring male to female ratio, which has arisen thanks to the marriage of sex-selective abortion technology with the traditional Chinese view that by “the accident of sex [the daughter] is a dreaded burden… certain to be despised.”

China during the 20th centuries saw many disappointments, traumatic convulsions, and finally, what appears to be a fairly sustainable takeoff into rising prosperity. The characteristics that Smith ascribed to China more than a century ago became redundant: The sense of nation and community was built up under the father-like gaze of Mao, while the transition to capitalism has imprinted upon the new Chinese man a lot of the basic characteristics of capitalism (e.g. “time is money”) that Smith leads us to believe are specifically Western but are not. And we must also bear in mind that America, too, is not the America of Smith’s time, e.g. public spirit and community life is held to have declined since the 1960′s on most metrics both statistical (e.g. wealth inequality, incarceration rate, crime rate, etc.) and intangible. So in a sense China and the “West” are converging towards being richer, more atomized, and for lack of a better term, “post-Smithian” societies. I would therefore argue that while Chinese Characteristics is of great historical and anthropological interest, its direct relevance to China today is very much limited.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
🔊 Listen RSS

In the discussion at the previous post, in which I took exception to Ron Unz’s theory of the East Asian Exception, he alerted me to so additional work on the matter he’d done as a Harvard freshman on Chinese IQ. You can read his summary of Social Darwinism and Rural China as well as Steve Sailer’s commentary on it.

Ron Unz’s Theory of Social Darwinism in Rural China

According to Ron Unz, Chinese peasants lived close to their Malthusian limits for millennia on end. That is correct. Furthermore, Chinese rural life was “remarkably sophisticated in its financial and business arrangements”, far more so even than in England. I do not have the comparative knowledge to offer informed commentary on this, though I would stop to note that such a system may not have been so much a generator of “selective pressure for those able to prosper” under complexity as a reflection of already high IQ’s. After all on most social, economic, and technological metrics China was far ahead of Europe until the 18th century or so (though there were important exceptions). Furthermore, “virtually all Chinese were on an equal legal footing”, with far fewer of the feudalistic or caste distinctions that proliferate in India and pre-Enlightenment Europe. This is also correct.

This environment included a number of mechanisms that promoted a highly eugenic development path for the Chinese population. Ron Unz says that only the relative affluent could afford their wives for their children. This is not quite correct, or should I say permanently correct, as this issue only heavily manifested itself during times of Malthusian stress, when families opted to kill baby daughters resulting in skewed sex ratios. Otherwise, we should note that Europeans within the Hajnal Line married late and that the poor sometimes didn’t marry at all, so this particular eugenic effect was if anything stronger in Europe.

However the biggest, and most specific to China, eugenic mechanism is argued to be the Chinese custom of fenjia 分家, lit. “family division.” So if, say, a wealthy Chinese family produced four surviving sons, each of them would inherit only a fourth of the family land. The brothers would be back to square one and would have to hustle for money again. A couple of the brothers might be successful and build up wealth again; another would fall into poverty, and the last one would fail to even find a wife and have children. The effect was that every generation, “a good fraction of the poor disappeared from the gene-pool.” As reproductive survivors would tend to be more intelligent and far-sighted, or so the argument goes, this selected for such traits within the Chinese population.

The system of meritocratic imperial exams, which enhanced the reproductive prospects of the very brightest who could pass them, was a further eugenic mechanism but one whose overall impact was “pretty small” compared with “the push from the bottom.”

Finally, Ron Unz compares his theory to Gregory Clark’s book Farewell to Alms, which argues for a eugenic mechanism in England in which the wealthy enjoyed greater reproductive success and, over the centuries, “civilized” the proles via genetic drift through downwards social mobility. As such, the traits of the aristocracy became inculcated in the English masses with all its attendant benefits, e.g. plummeting homicide rates. (This civilization doesn’t seem to have lasted very long however if yob culture and football hooligans are anything to go by). :) He notes that these eugenic mechanisms operated in China for far longer than they did in England.

He also compares the selection pressures facing the Chinese with those that produced the famed intelligence of the Ashkenazi Jew. Unlike the latter, the Chinese didn’t only have to be bright and business-savvy; as a peasant, he also had to maximize “physical endurance, robustness, diligence, discipline, energy-consumption.” As such, selection had a less one-sided skew in favor of intelligence.

My Critique

This is a nice and elegant theory. It has no obvious contradictions. He is planning to publish his analysis in a formal manner pretty soon. However, before he does so I hope that he will address some of the following counter-arguments and discrepancies.

Re-The (relatively) complex legal environment selected for intelligence. HOWEVER, the Chinese – as do East Asians in general – only perform significantly (hugely) better than whites on visuo-spatial intelligence. That is good for hunting mammoths in the prehistoric tundra and some aspects of mathematics, but not anywhere near as good for navigating complex legal codes in which verbal intelligence is key. However, Chinese verbal intelligence if anything lags the indigenous peoples of most developed European nations. According to 2009 PISA results, Chinese verbal (reading) IQ was 98, which was inferior to Germany’s 102, the US’ 101 (including Blacks and Hispanics), and Poland’s 100; and equal to that of Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece.

Here, ironically, Unz faces an additional dilemma: Either he has to reject his theory of the East Asian Exception (i.e. that the Flynn Effect barely applies to them), or he has to rethink his theory of Social Darwinism in rural China.

Re-The eugenic influence of fenjia. The model he sketches out is plausible enough on the surface. That said he has to account for several possible discrepancies.

Korea appears to have a max. potential IQ of about 107, while Japan is slightly lower. Did they have systems of land inheritance that also favored the development of IQ? I do not know. I hope Unz will investigate this matter. A potential problem, however, is that IF they did NOT have their own equivalents of fenjia, then it would be invalidated as a feasible explanation of why East Asian (including Chinese) IQ’s are so high.

Re-Comparison with George Clark’s theory. I don’t think this is a useful crutch to Ron Unz’s China theory at all. So supposedly England had this intensive genetic drift from the top to the bottom. However, today, UK natives (on PISA) score 101; in other IQ tests, the UK’s average is typically set to 100. These numbers are typically lower than those of the Germanic countries like Germany, the Netherlands, etc. – and equal to the IQ’s of the Nordics, the Western Slavs like the Poles and Czechs, (Celtic) Ireland, and (Celtic-Germanic) France.

Really my critiques boil down to a few main issues.

(1) We need more comparative data on IQ, land inheritance systems in the past, etc. I strongly suspect that for all but a few exceptions (e.g. Ashkenazi Jews) the traits developed in prehistoric times still predominate above all others. After all, pre-agrarian prehistory accounts for 90%+ of homo sapiens sapiens’ existence; and selection pressures back then were FAR stronger because of small population sizes. Noncompetitive tribes got wiped out by hostile tribes or the vagaries of climate with chilling frequency. In medieval times, noncompetitive genes were far likelier to linger on to some degree, firstly because welfare systems – crude and rudimentary as they were back then (e.g. poorhouses; alms, zakat, etc; grain reserves; etc) – were still a league ahead of what can possible exist in a tribal hunter-gatherer society; secondly, because violent as the ancient and medieval periods were, they were vastly more peaceful (and populations were bigger) than was the case in the prehistoric era.

(2) To what extent was fenjia unique to China? Was is common to the East Asian region, or not? If not, why then doesn’t Chinese IQ greatly exceed Korea’s? Did it exist in Vietnam? If it did, why then is Vietnamese IQ substantially lower than China’s? Etc. Also, explain why these mechanisms didn’t result in a particularly high verbal IQ; after all, to understand legal matters, that is really what we need, no?

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
🔊 Listen RSS

He writes:

These scores are indeed truly remarkable, and completely confirm the apparent pattern of Lynn’s IQ samples, in which desperately poor East Asians tend to score at or above the levels of the most successful and well-educated Western populations… But since the total population is at least well into the hundreds of millions, heavily rural as well as urban, the average PISA score of 520—corresponding to an IQ of 103—cannot be too dissimilar from the overall Chinese figure. And with China’s per capita GDP still only $3,700 and well over half the population still living in rural villages when the tests were conducted, these are absolutely astonishing results… Although opinions may certainly differ, I regard this new evidence as very strong support for my “East Asian Exception” hypothesis.

China isn’t anywhere near as backward as he portrays it.

(1) The urban-rural ratio was essentially 50/50 according to the 2010 Census. Furthermore, rural Chinese don’t really suffer from the absolute destitution common to peasants in Third World countries. They own their own land and it is almost impossible for them to lose it. Malnutrition is now close to non-existent. Slums are now very rare. According to a Gallup poll, Chinese now actually struggle less than Americans to buy food.

(2) Total Chinese meat consumption overtook US meat consumption in 1990, signifying a nutritionally adequate figure (as Americans eat a lot of and perhaps a bit too much meat anyway). Today Chinese meat consumption is half the US level. The PISA 2009 cohort would have been born in 1993, when Chinese nutrition had already essentially converged with the First World.

(3) He uses nominal GDP per capita which is quite meaningless. The PPP level of Chinese GDP per capita is $8,400 and that figure is probably underestimated.

Basically, if we adjust for the fact that in terms of basics (food, education, housing) China is now essentially equivalent to developed countries, it would make sense that its average IQ level is now only about 5 points from its potential maximum.

But really my fundamental problem with the “East Asia Exception” hypothesis is the huge paradox it exposes: Why was it Europe, and not China, that first underwent the Industrial Revolution? And the (initially unrelated) Scientific Revolution, for that matter? If as Ron Unz says the Flynn Effect barely applies to East Asian populations, then what you’d have had five centuries ago is 100mn Chinese, 20% of them urban – with an average IQ of maybe 95; and 100mn Europeans, only 5% of them urban – with an average IQ of 75. Sure Europe had various advantages (as chronicled by Jared Diamond, Kenneth Pomeranz, etc) but surely it couldn’t have trumped the effects of a 1 S.D. IQ advantage? That is why I believe the East Asia Exception to be historically implausible.

(Republished from AKarlin.com by permission of author or representative)
 
🔊 Listen RSS

One of the biggest questions in global history is why it was Western Europe that industrialized first, and ended up colonizing most of the rest of the world. As late as 1450, the possibility of such an outcome would have been ridiculed. By almost any metric, China was well in the lead through the medieval period – in technology (compass, paper, ship-building, gunpowder, movable type printing), government (bureaucrats were selected based on meritocratic exams, whereas in Europe professional civil services only began appearing in the 19th century), urbanization, etc.

In my view, most of the common explanations for the “European miracle” are largely self-congratulatory post hoc narratives that aren’t really convincing. Europe had markets, you say? For most of the medieval era, and even later, feudalism was the dominant social structure; the rising nation-states replaced it with mercantilism. Robber barons holed up in their castles charged extortionate rates on merchants passing through their fiefs. Throughout the period, most Chinese were freemen, enjoyed lower taxes, and fewer controls on land sales and industry; there were no internal trade barriers (instead, the government funded large projects such as the Grand Canal to economically unify the territory). China was far closer to the free market economy than Europe! Similar ventures only began to appear in Europe in the 18th century. In ancient regime France, there were internal controls on trade and many bureaucratic posts were up for sale to the highest bidder, a matter of considerable resentment that would contribute to the Revolution. Even the Enlightenment thinkers only dreamed of governing their countries as efficiently as they imagined the Celestial Empire did.

What about China’s stultifying Confucian traditionalism? Again, there was no shortage of reaction in Europe. No colonial empires bringing in revenue from trade and overseas commodities, because the Chinese grounded their fleet in the 1430′s? Please, Spain owned half the western hemisphere, and ended up stagnating despite (or because of) it; meanwhile, inland European regions with no colonial empires to speak of, such as the Ruhr or Silesia, industrialized early. Ravaged by rebellions, nomadic invasions, and repeated Malthusian crises? But Europe also had its fair share of these: the Black Death depressed European populations for nearly three centuries, and constituted a classical subsistence crisis, while some conflicts were also exceedingly devastating, e.g. the Thirty Years’ War that killed about a third of the German population. No good energy sources? China has as many rivers for watermills as Europe, and the Song dynasty produced more coal and pig iron in 1000AD than Europe did in 1800. The Chinese were hobbled by a low national IQ? This controversial theory was advanced in some circles to explain the historical failure of India or the Arab world, but whatever its merits, it surely can’t apply to China. Nor can several specific reasons given for the failures of other civilizations, such as water stress and desertification in the Middle East, or being on the wrong latitude as with Africa, India, and the Americas.

For a long time, I’ve only found two theories to be semi-plausible. First, Jared Diamond’s argument that China’s geography – a flatland of fertile river plains, capable of feeding big armies, with no major peninsulas that could host rival power bases – is naturally suited for unification (in contrast to Europe’s zigzag of mountain ranges and rugged peninsulas coasts). This reduced internal competition, so that the effects of bad policies – such as the occasional banning of private seafaring – reverberated throughout the whole of China, whereas in Europe only one region at a time suffered under Louis XIV’s fiscal depredations or the Spanish Inquisition. But on the other hand, surely this was counterbalanced by the returns to scale and (relative) internal peace enjoyed by a unified China, as opposed to fragmented Europe with its never-ending internecine wars? While IMO the charge of “geographical determinism” is thrown about too wildly nowadays, in this case it may be justified.

Second, as I said in my post on cliodynamics, the depth of Malthusian collapses that occurred in China were arguably bigger than in Europe, and tended to affect all of China at once (because of its greater internal connectedness). This meant that during these “dark age” periods, there may have been more technological regression in China than in Europe. Nonetheless, both of these theories are speculative and hedged with all manner of caveats. In my view, this question remains wide open.

However, I’m only writing this post because I think I’ve discovered a major, perhaps the major factor, that explains the “great divergence” between Europe and China. In short, it is China’s writing system.

From its origins in Phoenicia, the alphabet spread to Greece and Rome, and formed the building blocks of all future European literary culture. In contrast, China retains a system of hieroglyphs (汉字), inherited from the very earliest days of literacy (imagine using Egyptian hieroglyphs or Linear B today). All its writings are in the form of thousands of distinct symbols, and combinations thereof, expressing ideas. The hanzi may look much cooler than a standard alphabet, but in practice it throws up a host of serious problems.

1. Universal Literacy. It is much harder to attain practical literacy in Chinese, than it is in “normal” languages. A typical West European only has to know 26 or so symbols, and after that – because her language is mostly phonetic – she can transcribe most speech into text that is, at a minimum, legible and understandable. Not so for Chinese, where knowing how a word is pronounced is typically no clue as to how to write it. The PRC’s standards for literacy are recognition of 1,500 characters for rural dwellers and 2,000 characters for urban dwellers, but in fact it is estimated that real fluency requires knowledge at 3,000-4,000. Furthermore, this is passive recognition; writing stuff involves active recall, and is much more difficult still. David Moser’s The Writing on the Wall [DOC] has many amusing anecdotes on this subject, e.g.:

The most astounding example I encountered back in my early days studying Chinese was during a lunch with three graduate students in the Peking University Chinese department. I had a bad cold that day, and wanted to write a note to a friend to cancel a meeting. I found that I couldn’t write the character ti 嚔 in the word for “sneeze”, da penti 打喷嚔, and so I asked my three friends for help. To my amazement, none of the three could successfully retrieve the character ti 嚔. Three Chinese graduate students at China’s most prestigious university could not write the word for “sneeze” in their own native script! One simply cannot imagine a similar situation in a phonetic script environment – e.g., three Harvard graduate students unable to write a common word like “sneeze” in the orthography of their native language.

What was even more amazing – and puzzling – was that the Chinese people I dealt with showed almost no concern for this phenomenon. Most tended to explain away the situation as due to low educational standards, or merely natural everyday memory lapses. “And besides,” they would say to me, “Don’t you sometimes forget how to spell a word in English?” And I slowly began to realize that part of the problem is that, for most native Chinese, who have not grown up using an alphabetic system of writing, the contrast between the systems is not at all evident – they simply have no basis of comparison. Such people tend to assume that their difficulties are with the process of writing itself, rather than the particular writing system they are using.

Go, read his essay. And his other essay, Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard. Good, you’re back, and want to know what this has to do with China’s late industrialization. The answer is that, as I’ve argued many times on this blog, literacy rates, and educational human capital in general, is the most important prerequisite and determinant of economic development. The most literate countries in 1800 were also the richest ones in 2000. Thanks to its traditionally high levels of development and meritocratic system for grooming civil servants, China has always been relatively literate, until eclipsed by North Western Europe by 1800; as you can see in the graph below, its somewhat of an outlier. But knowing what we know of the peculiarities of literacy as limited by the very structure of its writing system…

(PS. Note that both Korean uses an alphabet; and so does Japanese, if a very complicated set of two alphabets (hiragana and katakana) with borrowings from Chinese hieroglyphs in the form of kanji. Could this, at least partially, explain why both Japan and Korea were far more successful at industrialization than China?)

One tentative implication is that the literacy rate estimated for historical China would be a fraction of its conventionally estimated percentage because to be able to functionally express the same range and depth of ideas in a hieroglyphic script as a scholar working with an alphabet-based writing system would constitute a much harder undertaking. I daresay that for anyone without a photographic memory, a great deal of time would simply be taken up with laboring over the Kangxi dictionary. This reduces the amount of mental energy that could be spent on more practical matters of original research or innovation.

2. Platonic Worldview. Many theorists have speculated about the role of traditionalism in keeping China back, but one can’t help noticing that such tendencies would logically be encouraged by the limitations of the Chinese writing system. Hieroglyphs originally evolved to keep track of two basic functions: religious ceremonies, trade accounts (e.g. bushels of grain delivered, etc), court historians (mostly formulaic accounts of dynasties, omens, wars, etc). As symbols stand for ideas, and given the simplicity of Chinese grammar, I suspect it is much harder to accurately convey unusual and complex phenomena in the Chinese script. Psychologically, this may have encouraged a Platonic worldview based on perfect forms, and the exaltation of traditional wisdom over the skeptical empirical, which is all antithetical to the scientific method.

3. Small Webs Of Reference. In pre-industrial times, much of what passed for industry and manufacturing was hands-and-eyes type of work, small artisans with apprentices and a few simple machine tools practicing their art in a workshop. China was abreast or ahead of medieval Europe in most of these spheres (barring a few things like eye-pieces and mechanical clocks). They even invented movable type printing well ahead of Europeans, which is truly amazing given how much simpler that system is for alphabet-based scripts. In some respects, Song China was already as economically developed as 18th century Europe. But they never made the leap to mass production and assembly lines; from about 1820, England made a qualitative spring forwards that China would not begin to replicate until the 1950′s.

Ultimately, the reason for this may reside in alphabetic script. Artisinal techniques can be conveyed well enough by word of mouth; the larger projects, such as dams or canals, can be overseen by a few very well-educated bureaucrats with the appropriate symbolic expertise. But once you get into the world of mass production, steamships, advanced metallurgy, chemicals, electricity, etc., then you can’t do without a big reservoir of specialists with a high degree of functional literacy, and a big, shared body of knowledge that these specialists can consult. The Chinese writing system is not conductive to the emergence of the far wider webs of reference, of citation and indexing, that is a prerequisite for an industrial takeoff. As Moser points out, this remains a problem even in the digitized modern age:

Yet even if some technological fix were to be devised to solve the problem of character entry, the non-alphabetic nature of the writing system still results in other serious and long-standing “invisible” problems. For example, the inclusion of a standard index to books, manuals and reference materials is made orders of magnitude more difficult by the Chinese writing system. The result is that to this day, the vast majority of non-fiction books published in China do not have an index, or anything like it. This fact seems incredible to those firmly ensconced in the alphabetic world, for obviously the lack of an index considerably lessens a book’s usefulness. Removing indexes from Western library books would be like an atomic bomb being dropped into academia. Yet their lack is a mundane fact of life in China.

… In virtually every informatic context, from library card catalogs to everyday user’s manuals, the relatively cumbersome Chinese writing system exerts a low-level but constant drag force on productivity, and tends to reinforce an undemocratic state of affairs in which only the educated elite or the doggedly determined make full use of the tools of the information environment.

Now imagine the challenges faced by Chinese scholars of yore, who did not even have the pinyin alphabetization system to help them out. In summary, the main problem of hieroglyphic writing systems is that it puts a mass of structural impediments towards the effective sharing of information that would not otherwise exist in an alphabetic system. This might be as good an explanation of why China reached a technological plateau early, and then largely stagnated for the better part of a millennium, as any other.

(Granted, there were improvements during this period. For instance, there was a huge burst in agricultural productivity during the Qing dynasty, which enabled the Chinese population to remain on par with the European. But this was a matter of traditional experimentation with crop varieties that has been practiced since the dawn of agriculture; an industrial revolution it does not – and cannot – make.)

Many pundits believe Chinese industrial catch-up is unsustainable because of its “traditional” lack of innovation and tendency to retreat into itself and stagnate. However, if this, for now admittedly fragile, theory is accurate, then the prospects for China under 21st century technological conditions look auspicious (for now, we’ll leave aside issues of climate change and Limits to Growth). Automatic translators can instantly look up any characters; likewise, any pinyin can be instantly converted into the appropriate character. Cell phone apps can recognize characters on paper and translate them. In tandem, a limited alphabetization and modern IT have overcome most of the structural difficulties that once stymied Chinese breakthrough into the world of industrialism and hi-tech. Furthermore, the critical languages of the future are those of math and computer science, and in these the Chinese are on a level playing field.

I can only finish these ruminations with a few comments on the big debate surrounding the simplification and/or alphabetization of Chinese. Largely, the latter is far more effective than the former; simplification may, in most (but not all) cases, improve the chances of character memorization, but it doesn’t resolve the core problems of hieroglyphic writing systems. On the other hand, the Chinese characters are a major cultural legacy and losing them would be tragic. As such, it would be best IMO to use pinyin (or Gwoyeu Romatzyh; I wish, LOL!) for practical purposes, but continue compulsory teaching of Traditional and Simplified characters for their historical and literary value.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
 
No Items Found
Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.