Dumb luck, China, and the Industrial Revolution

Another take on the "Needham question"

Published July 9, 2008 7:00PM (EDT)

Back in May, we had a a rollicking good discussion, here, and here, on the question of why China didn't have an Industrial Revolution, in response to my review of Simon Winchester's biography of the great China scholar Joseph Needham.

I just discovered historian Jonathan Dresner's take on "the Needham question" at Frog in a Well, and I want to highlight it, not just because he quotes me, but because I like this final paragraph.

The upshot of the Needham tradition scholarship, as I understand it, is that it was more macroeconomic and political problems than technological skills which resulted in China's "lost ground" in the modern age, but a significant component of it was historical contingency (or "dumb luck," as we used to say). Nothing inevitable about it, and nothing fundamental. China wasn't the only great Early Modern empire to flounder in the modern age -- in fact, it was more the norm than the exception, as the Ottomans, Russians, Mughals, Iberians and Hapsburgs show. "The West" wasn't a terribly coherent entity -- especially not organizationally! -- and contrasting "it" with China without a little consciousness of the internal tensions, backwards regions, and failures contained within the Western tradition makes no sense, intellectually, historically or politically.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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