China in the Dark Ages
When we are discussing why China did not develop modern science as the West did, we often make a mistake by viewing the past from the present perspective, i.e. we view the military and economic achievements of the West as a direct result from their emphasis on science since the age of Renaissance, which surpassed the East in recent centuries.
From such point of view, we come to a conclusion that China is backward because “China didn’t invent this and that”, and conclude that “China cannot invent this and that”.
However, this way of thinking is flawed. They just think that the West emphasized science from the very beginning, which miss out the influence of the Dark Ages. In the Dark Ages, the whole Western world was the dominion of Christianity. Christianity influenced the education and thinking of the West deeply. We often blame Confucianism as the reason which hindered the development of science and technology, without noticing the similar impact of Christianity in the West.
If you said “the Earth is round” in ancient China, you were at most being treated as a lunatic; you would be executed by burning in the West. If the East ended up developing science and technology instead of the West, maybe it would be the turn for the Westerners to blame on Christianity for suffocating the development of science and technology.
My point of view may sound like a heresy. I don’t think it’s the problem of Confucianism. My view is that the path of historical development of China is similar to the West, but in different stages. The West has passed through the Dark Ages and Renaissance, the ancient and medieval legacies were synthesized to form a new civilization. China is still probably in the Dark Ages and yet to enter the age of Renaissance.
For the West, the Roman Empire was the summit of ancient civilization. After its decay, fall and disintegration, here came the Dark Ages. Renaissance came around a thousand years later, when the ancient legacy was rediscovered. Renaissance, instead of the introduction of new thinking or ideology, was more of the revival of classicism.
We can view China in a similar way. Ancient Tang Dynasty was open-minded to foreign cultures. The Emperor was respected as Tian Kehan (天可汗) by the nomads in Central Asia. This period can be viewed as equivalent to the golden age of the Roman Empire. The succeeding Song Dynasty, though weak in military power, made great achievements in art, culture and economy. This can be compared to the declining Roman Empire and the stage of disintegration. The fall of China under Mongolian invasion was similar to the fall of the Roman Empire.
Though Ming Dynasty reemerged resembling the preceding Song Dynasty, can we say they were the same? There were indeed some similarities, but the Imperial Examination was reduced to Eight-legged Essay, and the legacy of decrees and regulations could only retain their forms than spirits. So they are not the same in substance.
When we study world history, we do not treat Byzantine or the Holy Roman Empire as equivalent to the Roman Empire, they are the different states with similar names. But when we study Chinese history, we often make mistakes by treating the dynasties as the same state. For the history prior to Song Dynasty, we can still say China was just changing its dynasties but the same state remained. But it is obvious when it comes to the Mongols, the state of China was destroyed. We cannot fool ourselves by saying this state is just being succeeded one by one by different dynasties.
Many things were inherited, but more were destroyed. Before the invasions of barbarians, the empires in the West and East were named as ancient Roman Empire and Chinese Empire respectively. After the invasion, the ancient Chinese Empire fell. Though many new administrations emerged hundred years later, claiming themselves as “China”, they are new states different from the old one. They built up new states from the ruins from the old one.
From this perspective, China entered the Dark Ages since the Yuan Dynasty (or Mongol Empire). Yes, there were many achievements in Yuan and Ming Dynasties, as the West did in the Dark Ages. Crusaders started their expeditions in the Dark Ages, and the West made breakthroughs in art and technology. But in the Dark Ages of China, atrophies were widespread, from human minds to the openness of the culture. Legacies of the ancient times were distorted in their meanings.
For example, Confucianism was distorted as Eight-legged Essay, similar to the distortion the teachings of Christianity into Inquisitions. Teachings lost their flexibility and became dogmas. Tortures were abused, human minds became narrowed, foreign cultures received little acceptance. People became superstitious, the state adopted close-door policy and rejected foreign contacts. Foreign cultures were viewed as heresy and monsters.
You cannot refute this hypothesis simply by the example of Treasure Voyages of Zheng He. The essence of the Dark Ages is the change in culture, instead of a change of national power or political power. Chinese always make mistakes by paying attention to the change of political power only. They simply view the periods of unification as the rise of the state, separation as the fall of the state, ignoring the change in human minds and culture.
The fall of the Roman Empire led to the Dark Ages which lasted for one thousand years, we may speculate there was a similar duration for the Dark Ages of China since the fall of the Song Dynasty. So we are likely to find ourselves in the last years of the Dark Ages. Today’s China has adopted foreign technologies and economic systems, but has the human minds become open and tolerate? If not, we are still in the Dark Ages.
Only when we revive the legacies of the classical culture and start to disseminate it, we can say we are in Renaissance. Science gained an important position in the West only after Renaissance, maybe it will be the same in the East under the context of Confucianism. Confucianism is nevertheless pragmatic. The difference is that we make contacts with the Western civilization before we are out from the Dark Ages, which make us think that science is lacking in Confucianism, and as the reason of backwardness.
If we lived in the Dark Ages of China without contacts with the Western civilization, maybe we just led a life just like those Westerners in their Dark Ages. In this scenario, there may be a Chinese-version-Renaissance in around 2100 AD, where China would be able to develop its own technology and civilization.
Though it was only a speculation, there was such a possibility.
Anyway, it is not the fault of Confucianism. It is the matter of time. Renaissance was a glass of vintage wine which took one thousand years to brew. We are just lucky enough to have contacts with the West before we are out from the Dark Ages, so we are able to enjoy the achievements of the West, from microwaves to flush toilets. We don’t need to wait for a thousand years for Confucianism to brew its own Renaissance.
We are just one step slower than the West. Up to this moment, yes, we are still one step slower. We should not simply blame on our traditions and cultures. Many think it is the fault of Confucianism, the fault of Chinese language, the fault of Confucius, but never would it be their own faults. We cannot appreciate the legacy of traditional China, nor do we really appreciate the foreign achievements. We are just like the primitives worshipping the industrial inventions and dreaming that once we own them, we can catch up with the inventors. We just do not notice that our thinking is still backward.
Prosperity of the West originated from the Reformation, centuries after Renaissance. The Industrial Revolution was just a breaking point turning the achievements into tangible inventions and products. Considering the stage of social development, the West in the time of Reformation has already exceeded China.
One of the great mistakes of the Chinese is to think that the West surpassed China by steam engine, instead of the Reformation. Chinese obsession on steam engines resulted in backwardness in institutions and humanity.