Today, China fails to isolate herself from a
whirlwind. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
The Jesuits tried to open
China up in the late 1500s. The Ming Dynasty was
wealthy, powerful, and stable. China had rich
agriculture, a fine water-power base, and a spider
web of waterways. She had highly refined craft
technologies. Her porcelains and silks were the
finest in the world. And, in a world that wouldn't
trade with the outside world, her merchants sat on
the lowest rung of the social ladder.
The Chinese listened politely while the Jesuits
talked about European science. Then they replied:
Europe, they said, had nothing to offer a superior
culture. They did like our mathematics. But the
only produce items that remotely caught their
interest were Europe's marvelous mechanical clocks.
Emperor Wan-li agreed that mechanical clocks made
fine toys, but not much more than that. He was
wrong, of course. Clocks were the stalking horses
for a new class of scientific instruments. Science
was changing into a rational pursuit that would
soon take invention where it never had been. By
1700 the wedding of science and invention had led
to the steam engine. By 1700 we were firing the
first shots in the Industrial Revolution.
English production and Dutch shipbuilding reshaped
Europe into a great international department store.
Chinese porcelain and silks were the most lucrative
commodities in that store. The wealthy in England
and Europe were hypnotized by things Chinese. By
the 18th century they added a new Chinese commodity
to their want list. They added tea.
But the Chinese had no interest in anything the
West might offer them. Trade balances drifted
hopelessly out of whack as Western gold vanished
Then England found a commodity it could sell to
China. England began growing opium in its Asian
colonies and moving it across the borders --
illegally. By the early 1800s they'd righted the
trade inequities. They'd also addicted millions of
people and shredded the fabric of Chinese society.
China finally went to war against England to stop
the drug trade. But now she found herself fighting
the most powerful nation on earth. After three
years, she had to give in and form a series of
international trade agreements.
Those events haunt us today. Drugs from the poorer
countries are doing to us just what England did to
China. Now we've started unloading our equally
addictive tobacco on them. If only China had joined
the free trade of technology in 1600! And what
might the world be today, if only our trade with
poorer nations were a trade in ideas instead of a
trade in drugs?
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds