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Lunch » Tags » Books » Reviews » The Genius of China: 3,000 Years of Science, Discovery, and Invention » User review

What China did first

  • Mar 24, 2011
  • by
is pretty much everything, says Temple.  This book pays tribute to the fruits of a large population over long periods of time with an empirical mindset.

First a bit of history (a subject the Chinese probably invented, although too broad to be cataloged here).  Temple is a devotee of Joseph Needham, the scientist turned Sinologist made famous by Simon Winchester's biography The man who loved China.  The Genius of China is in fact an authorized synopsis of the massive Science and Civilisation in China (13 volumes published in 1986 when Temple wrote, 24 at the time of Winchester's 2008 biography, and still in progress despite Needham's passing in 1995) of which Needham is the author/editor.  Clearly, such a mass of data is not likely to be affordable or accessible to the average reader, so Temple performs a valuable service with his synopsis.  

And the data is staggering.  The endpapers show graphically not just the date of precedence for the Chinese inventions and discoveries in the various fields of science, engineering, medicine, technology, mathematics, transportation, exploration and warfare, but by horizontal bar graph the lag before adoption or reinvention in the west.  The lag is typically measured in several centuries, even millennia.  Arranged encyclopedicly, the book has an entry for each discovery or invention that documents the event, with the earliest date for reliable contemporary evidence, and pictures of the device or discovery, sometimes from contemporary sources, sometimes from photographs of current iterations of it.

If you have read Winchester's biography or otherwise know something of Needham's life, you can expect that this book isn't just a history of technology and discovery, but a history with a purpose, to show that China was and is superior to the West in its ways of thinking.  The comments sometimes quoted from Needham and sometimes directly from Temple about the long lags and European deficiencies in understanding and applying the Chinese advances can be quite snarky, even inappropriate for a scholarly journal.  But then this isn't a scholarly journal, is it?  It is a popularization of a massive undertaking by a committed and confirmed apologist for Chinese supremacy in these areas, so take it with whatever dosage of salt you feel is appropriate.

But you must in any case be impressed with the body of knowledge compiled here.  As I said in my lead, it is a testimony to the incredible inventive power of large populations of people with an empirical mindset over long periods of time in a society with a stable language, culture, and government.  As Temple points out, many of the Chinese inventions were empirically discovered and applied to solve specific problems without processing through rigorous scientific methods to understand or extend the implications to theory or other applications.

The introductory essays by Needham and Temple briefly address some key questions that the book will raise to the perceptive reader:
  1. Why did it take so long for the West to rediscover or adopt these ideas?
  2. Why were so many of these ideas lost or forgotten even within China so that the Western rediscovery seems to be unique and new, even to China?
  3. Why did this inventiveness seem to reach a peak and then fade out sometime around the 14th century?
  4. Might the answers to any of these questions be related to each other and to the increasing contact between China and the West starting around the time of Marco Polo?

This book doesn't undertake to answer these questions, just to dazzle with the breadth of Chinese precedence in science, discovery, and invention, and it serves nicely. 

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March 26, 2011
This sounds like a super thought-provoking and eye-opening book. I love the spin on history that this author seems to take!
About the reviewer
Todd Stockslager ()
Ranked #43
I love reading and writing about what I have read, making the connections and marking the comparisons and contrasts. God has given man the amazing power to invent language and the means to record it which … more
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About this book


Needham, the foremost Western historian of Chinese science, has written 15 volumes of his projected 25-volume Science and Civilisation in China series initiated in 1954. This immense, authoritative work has long needed distillation for the general reader, and British writer Temple impressively accomplishes the task here. Beautifully illustrated, the book describes some 5000 years of Chinese science, discovery and invention from agriculture, astronomy and engineering through industrial technology, medicine, math and music, up to, in an ironic closing chapter, the Chinese genius in warfare, including ancient Chinese usage of mustard gas, gunpowder and rockets. The book is an exhilarating celebration of historic achievements, the breadth of which will astonish the general reader. BOMC alternate; Macmillan Book Club selection.
Copyright 1986 Reed Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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ISBN-10: 1594772177
ISBN-13: 978-1594772177
Author: Robert Temple
Genre: Professional & Technical
Publisher: Inner Traditions
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