2003 November 12 Wednesday
Ancient Chinese And Greek Thinking Compared

Jonathan Barnes has written an interesting review of The Way and the Word: Science and Medicine in Early China and Greece by Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin about why Chinese science and philosophy were so different.

But second, "the very adversariality of Greek modes of inquiry seems to affect also the content of theories." Just as in the particular case of Plato, "the form of his writing affects its philosophical content,' so in general the manner of Greek philosophising determines its matter. After all, "the great variety of Greek cosmological accounts is to be expected, in view of the systematic competitiveness of Greek philosophy and science."

The cosmologist must sell his wares in the intellectual marketplace; and if he is to outsell his rivals, he had better put a few novelties in his window. Not only that, he must talk up his own goods and talk down those of his rivals. Hence, on the one hand, the facts of Greek intellectual life "favoured systematically exploring the arguments on both sides of fundamental questions" (in order to prove your adversaries wrong), something which "may well have contributed to a readiness not merely to air but to maintain the contradictory of what might pass as a commonsensical view".

By contrast, the writers argue, China didn't have as much of an intellectual marketplace.

In China there was no raucous marketplace. The Chinese were generally writing for the emperor. Hence they "did not feel a need for incontrovertibility, the driving force in... Greek investigations". Rather, "what corresponds in China to the Greek authority of demonstration was the authority of sagely origin", so that "scientific pursuits in China... did not aim at stepwise approximations to an objective reality but at recovery of what the archaic sages already knew".

Moreover, writing for the emperor's eyes "encouraged precision in moral, social and political categories, but it did not motivate an equal fastidiousness with regard to the foundations of knowledge"; and at the same time, in China, "overt, reciprocal polemic of a kind that might have pushed epistemological problems to the fore was rare".

As Barnes points out, and apparently even the authors acknowledge, when it comes to complex series of human events stretching over centuries history is rarely so simple that a single explanation will explain a difference in outcomes. There was competition in China by scholars to get funding by noble men. Chinese scholars did have incentives to argue. But perhaps not just bureaucreacy but culture as well may have discouraged in-your-face argument. Or did bureaucracy of the imperial Chinese sort create the culture that discouraged public debate in the first place?

Other factors could have been at work as well. Picture a clever useful idea appearing by chance in one culture and not another and assume that considerable barriers existed to the transmission of ideas between the cultures. That idea could have stimulated the development of still more ideas from it. The two cultures would then diverge because of a single germinating idea that occurred in only one of them. This is analogous to how a mutation in one isolated population of a species can cause that population to gradually take a different path in pursuing environmental niches and therefore to experience selective pressures in an entirely different way and therefore to develop in a different direction.

It would be interesting to know how many Greek versus Chinese thinkers were self-supporting. In Greece was there a bigger class that was not part of a formal bureaucracy and yet which did not need to work? Was that class more likely to be city dwellers where its members could interact with each other more than would have been the case with affluent farmers? Also, even when the support in Greece came from politically powerful people did the Greek city-state system create less uniformity of thought than the top-down centralized Chinese bureaucracy? After all, one of the arguments made in the debates to explain the rise of the West is that the split of Europe into many competing states led to more competition between states and greater likelihood that any invention or development would find support in at least one state. So maybe competing political autonomous units explain part of the Greek advantage.

Also, how far back did the Chinese imperial system of testing for entrance into the bureaucracy extend? To the extent that learning and mastering an existing standardardized body of knowledge (and I shudder at the thought of the trend toward a standardized US national curriculum) is the route to advancement this would tend to pull people away from engaging in original thought. New ideas do not help one pass tests and advance up the test-based ladder.

Another possible explanation for a difference in Greek and Chinese thought pattern is the nature of the language. See my FuturePundit post Mandarin Language Uses More Of The Brain Than English. If language uses part of the brain that would otherwise be available for other purposes it must have the effect of draining off brain power from those other uses. Though that might have led to natural selection to increase brain capacity to support the demands of the language. Still, if, compared to another language some language uses a different part of the brain it might cause people to conceptualize the world in a different manner.

Update Also see BrainySmurf Adam Morris on this topic. I have doubts about the idea that more unified periods of Greek history produced more ideas. The unity of the Athenian Empire led into the war with Sparta. There do not strike me as having been distinct periods of strife and unity in ancient Greek history. Also, the other city-states that had to align with Athens probably internally did not force their intellectuals to toe the Athenian line in public discourse. But I'm just guessing on that one.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 November 12 09:32 AM  History Of Knowledge

Dave Trowbridge said at November 13, 2003 2:40 PM:

"If language uses part of the brain that would otherwise be available for other purposes it must have the effect of draining off brain power from those other uses."

What evidence do we have that brain power is a zero-sum game? Could it not be that using more of the brain would evoke, not less, but more capabilities due to increased neural connections? Or some other effect? I think that's altogether too facile a conclusion, but would be interested if you can point to any supporting information.

But an interesting post, nonetheless! Meat and potatoes for world-building SF&F writers like myself.

Steve Sailer said at November 13, 2003 8:24 PM:

My general impression is that China was typically closer to the population carrying capacity of the land at each level of technology than Europeans were. The Chinese tended to marry young, while Europeans delayed marriage longer, so populations pressures were less intense in the West. The Chinese were more dependent upon social order and harmony, because whenever the machinery of government broke down, famine and/or epidemic ensued and vast numbers of people died. The number of Chinese who died in recent breakdowns in central rule as in the Tai-Ping rebellion of the 1860s are staggering.

This rational fear of disorder may have led Chinese thinkers to be more focused upon the maintenance of unitary power in the emperor and his bureaucracy, and thus made them more hostile to the more adversarial forms of argument found in the West.

Eric said at November 16, 2003 9:26 AM:

The Chinese married young but actually practiced family planning unlike their European counterparts. The first sizable famines happened in China after the British had begun to move in and replace the traditional agricultural production and granaries with poppies. The numbers are staggering but these problems could also be looked at as not problems with the Chinese system rather the natural result of what happens when barbarians invade. The Opium Wars may have ended before the Taiping rebellion but the British did not leave their Opium factories in Taiwan until the Japanese kicked them out and took over.

Frankly some of the claims in the article are beyond belief. "Yet in China "books came into existence, by fits and starts, much later than in the Greek world"; and in 6BC the imperial Chinese library contained a mere six hundred titles - the library of Alexandria, that hotbed of strident orality, had more than a hundred times as many." He fails to mention that 200 years previous to this the imperial library of the Qin was destroyed and that it probably dwarfed Alexandria.

Finally I think that before you fully place your trust in this book you should look at the dates being discussed and read Joseph Needham's "Science and Civilisation in China." Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1959. The Golden age of Greece was concurrent with a period of Chinese history that had not yet developed the stereotypical bureaucracy that many Western historians have clinged to since Malthus first got it wrong. It boggles my mind why so many historians since him have placed their trust in a man who could not read the books of the country he purportedly knew so much about. Needham's series shows a very strong scientific market place that was active. In addition his series is only a collection of what has been published in the West it does not even use the majority of two thousand years of Chinese historians writings which have not been translated.

PS: Pythagoras didn't even come up with the theorem first, in China it had already been proven graphically by the time he supposedly was alive.

Randall Parker said at November 16, 2003 10:10 AM:


When did the Chinese start to practice family planning? How'd they do it? My impression was that anyone with enough financial resources had as many kids as they could afford.

I doubt that poppy fields could have taken up enough land to have a major impact on Chinese food supplies. Simple economic logic tends to suggest there'd be a limit on how much acreage would be given over to poppies. There would have been more demand for food than for opium.

Sizable famines: All parts of the world have had major famines down thru history. Famines didn't first start happening when Europeans started to colonize various parts of the world. Calorie malnutrition has been widespread for most of human history and the modern reduction in plagues is more due to a reduction in calorie malnutrition than to advances in medicine.

Why, after the Qin library was destroyed, was there still so few books 2 centuries later? And is it known with accuracy how big the Qin library was?

Early Chinese history and bureaucracy: The other issue here is that imperial China only gradually expanded to encompass such large areas that all of the Chinese were effectively under imperial bureaucracy. It has been too long since I read world history books and so I don't recall when the various steps in expansion happened. But I recall from William H. McNeill's Plagues & Peoples that Chinese central rule only slowly expanded southward because the higher incidence of disease in the south made it harder to maintain a centralized government with higher concentrations of population.

Eric said at November 17, 2003 6:52 AM:

I am sorry but I can not give you an exact date on family planning. I left my notes at home in America and am working from my head. Here is a link to a course syllabus that gives a nice summary. http://www.hss.caltech.edu/humanities/research/marriage-vs-fertility I am sorry but for the life of me I cannot remember the name of the author or title of the most recent China population studies book that debunks alot of the myths about Chinese population. The author built an incredible database to give the first clear look at primarily Ming and Qing dynasty populations. If I remember it I will post it here. His conclusions though were similar to what is discussed in that syllabus.

Perhaps if the market was ever actually allowed to move naturally but the British were not interested in what happened in China only what happened to their bank accounts. They could make more money selling opium than they could selling food. Opium was not the only culprit the British also wanted cotton and this too helped to replace crops. Neither of these were the largest problem though. The book, Timothy Brook and Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, editors, "Opium Regimes: China, Britain, and Japan, 1839-1952" is an excellent way to begin learning the basics of what was going on with the opium trade.

Famines have happened throughout history around the world, but until the British arrived on the seen china had an excellent granary system in place that allowed them to suffer minimal population loss. The British brought 'civilization' and destroyed this. The same thing happened when they put trains into India. They weren't interested in feeding Indians. They were interested in shipping the product back to England as the last half of the 19th century saw the Russian grain collapse. "Late Victorian Holocaust" http://www.epinions.com/content_68975890052 is an excellent book to read to get a handle on exactly what was happening to the grain. Particularly disturbing are average caloric intake charts that place Indian workers on british plantations below prisoners of Auschwitz.

So far archeological evidence continues to prove the theories of the size of the Qin library correct. One way to definitively prove it would be to open the tomb of Qin Shi Huang Di but right now that appears impossible. They would have to hermetically seal a pyramid larger than the great pyramid in Egypt. When old scrolls are exposed to air scholars have watched the ink literally disappear from the pages while they are reading them. I have no answer to why there were so few, this article was the first time I had ever heard about the number of books in the Han dynasty library.

I have no real response to the expansion into southern China. I have not studied much of South China's early history. Your assesment sounds like what I have heard though. I do know that there was not all encompassing empire until the Qin in about 250 BCE. The Han spread pretty far though. From my understanding it was not until perhaps the Tang dynasty that there was any real bureaucratic cotrol in the south. In addition throughout its imperial history the ruling bureaucrats only comprised a very very very minor part of the population so even at its height I wonder how much control they had.

Randall Parker said at November 19, 2003 8:25 AM:

Eric, I'm told by someone who knows a lot of Chinese history that most of the opium consumed in China was grown in India and exported to China. Hence the term "opium trade". He doesn't think the Brits ever controlled more than 0.1 percent of all arable land in China. So it is hard to see how the Brits could have reduced crop production in China by all that much. Remember, Britain didn't control most of China. By contrast, Britain controlled India. So it made far more sense to grow opium in India than in China.

Britain in the 19th century was colonizing Australia and also had Canada which were both in the process of becoming big grain producers. The US was becoming a big grain producer as well. Canada and the US were closer than India (especially pre-Suez Canal) and the Brits could ship food from the new world most easily. The Brits had much better places to grow wheat and corn than India.

Also, under British rule rice production grew quite dramatically in India and it was rice that eventually became an export from India. But I don't think it ever made a big impact on British diets.

Bob said at September 26, 2004 9:32 PM:

Neeham's "Science and Civilisation in China." has indicated a number of superiority on Chinese technology for example, one is in agriculture:

The 17th to 19th centuries saw a transformation of North European agricultural technology, basedon the development of the turn-plough with curved iron mould-board, the seed drill and the horse-shoe, all of which has been around in the central plain at least as early as the western Han. Jethro Hull was the first European explicitly to formulate this integral system of 'horse hoeing husbandry' in 1731, yet an agricultural system incorporating all the same very elements had existed in North China since Han times, while individual elementsof the system were to be found in several other parts of East Asia. The multi harvest system in China is also far ahead for its time. The Chinese plow concentrated the force much more efficiently on the sharp blade of the plow, with the mould-board designed to turn the soil with a minimum of drag. With the European plow, the entire straight wooden mould-board pushed against the soil. Therefore, the Chinese plow achieved a far higher energy-flux density, and accomplished far more work with far less effort. Chinese plows were so efficient, that they required only one or two animals to pull them. Four, six, or even eight draft animals were needed to pull the inefficient European plow. The Chinese plow was vastly more efficient than the European plow, both per worker and per unit of energy used. As LaRouche states, ``This difference is Leibniz's definition of the subject matter of technology.'' This method was so inefficient that most of the seeds never germinated to produce a crop. The plants also grew up in a disorganized mess. Weeding the fields was impossible, so the plants were left to compete with the weeds until harvesting season. This considerably reduced the crop. In Europe, it was often necessary to save one-half of the harvest to use as seeds the next year.

By no later than the Sixth Century B.C., the Chinese adopted the practice of growing crops in evenly spaced rows, and using a hoe to remove the weeds. ``Master Lu's Spring and Autumn Annals,'' states ``If the crops are grown in rows they will mature rapidly because they will not interfere with each other's growth.

By these superior techniques along with the grwoth of millet Chinese crops yield 8 times as much as European ones. This according to many scholars is one of the reason that Chinese troops are so large in size compared to their western counterparts.

China also surpassed Greeks in metallerygy in both Bronze and iron. China could use blast furnace to produce a molten metal, greatly expanded production: The process could be continuous, as the molten metal flowed from the reducing furnace, was poured into molds, and made into a large variety of products.
The blast furnace was introduced in Europe, on a wide scale, only in the late 14th Century, almost 2,000 years later. China already could make cast iron and therefore steel by the warring states period which could not have been possible in Greece.

brent reimer said at September 17, 2005 4:38 PM:

What kind of assessment methods did the greeks use?

Andrea Lambeti said at June 11, 2008 11:04 AM:

It is a true fallacy to compare ancient Greece with ancient China. The two civilizations though in existence since antiquity had little in common. In fact the ancient Greeks had more bilateral trade, cultural exchange, friendship and held in higher regard, ancient India, rather than China. Also, most of what has been claimed by the ethnic Chinese scholars as being "Chinese Culture" or "Chinese Philosophy", recent findings suggest these ideas, works and innovations were in reality, heavily borrowed by the geographically isolated Chinese from the Persian, Indian and Greek civilizations instead.

Andrea Lambeti said at June 11, 2008 11:14 AM:


Again if you check your facts, metallurgy was invented in India, there are still six iron pillars from 3000 B.C. placed in various parts of India, which are in existence till today. They are also of cast iron and has neither rusted nor crumbled. Which shows once again that the Chinese were good emulators and not smart innovators. Hence, if a similar process existed in China at all(which I doubt), it came from India and were not 'developed' by the Chinese. Praises about Indian metallurgy has been recorded in ancient Greek texts and accounts of Plato, but nothing has been mentioned about Chinese prowess in this area. Another common Chinese claim is the invention of paper and writing. This claim has come under some cloud recently when evidence tends to suggest that ancient Egyptians and Greeks were the likely inventors of paper and the Chinese probably borrowed this (emulators) through trade routes from Persia or India.

"China also surpassed Greeks in metallerygy in both Bronze and iron. China could use blast furnace to produce a molten metal, greatly expanded production: The process could be continuous, as the molten metal flowed from the reducing furnace, was poured into molds, and made into a large variety of products.
The blast furnace was introduced in Europe, on a wide scale, only in the late 14th Century, almost 2,000 years later. China already could make cast iron and therefore steel by the warring states period which could not have been possible in Greece."

arun said at September 8, 2008 8:57 AM:

hi man it is true that we indians were one of the best in metallurgy , we have a pillor in delhi which is remenants of a temple built around 200bc , it has neither rusted nor crumbled.
during its hey days india was rich in philosophy,there is nothing wrong in absorbing best of others.
they(china) did observe our budhism and metallurgy.we too gained from them the art of paper making,but i cant think of any thing they (china)gained from greeks.in those days u(europeans) were in dark ages compared to enlighted oriental nations.Which can be seen in our culture of placing values over materialismof u.As an indian as to my knowledge british destroyed india by changing patern in agriculture by encouraging commercial crops like tea, opium ,cofee,and was root cause of famines.THEy continued to destroy our temples and books which were treausures of past.they brought in theory called aryan theory,to make indians beleive that culture was introduced to india by migrators from the west,sadly this theory genitics disapproves this theory,
greeks at their peek during alexander cant capture india (orginal history is he lacked the fire power to defeat the nandas (the main indian empire at that time)), he only defeated small peripheral indian state of porus through ambush and gureeila tactics.
europeans think greeks were best civilization ,that was not the case, it was just a land of homosexuals(eg alexander aristotle which itself is a uncivilised way of living,they just rose to power through brutality,and were nomadic compared to india and china at that time

Henry Roberts Jr. said at September 10, 2010 11:30 AM:

@ arun,

My young one. Your knowledge of history is blinded by propagandistic ideologies implanted inside you from folklore.
I will keep this very simple. Alexander was never defeated in war and he did not use "ambush and guerrilla tactics" on Porus.
He did not "lack the fire power" to defeat Nandas. His empire was one of the largest and employed the best armies and tactics known to man.

You are simply a child... and your grammar is a testimony to that.

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