For a good chuck of recorded human history Chinese civillisation was pretty much the most advanced in the world. Chinese civillisation had a good deal of stability, wealth and had a high level of scientific achievement. In contrast European civillisation was still struggling to get out of the dark ages.
For some reason however, despite all these advantages China never underwent an indigenous industrial revolution. They just carried on the way they were eventually surpassed during the 19th century by European civillisation, which became the dominant civillisation from then till present day.
So what gives? How did one of the longest continuous civilisations get surpassed when by all measures it had everything going for it?
Environmental historian Mark Elvin proposes that China was a victim of it’s own success in his “high-level equilibrium trap” hypothesis. The basic gist of the theory is that China got so good at running pre-industrial civillisation the way it was that there was little incentive to innovate and improve on existing methods.
Geography also helped- any need for more resources could easily be met by simply farming more land. Chinese production, infrastructure and labour were already so cheap and efficient that it simply wasn’t profitable to work towards greater efficiency. Basically, there was no incentive to innovate or discover new things.
These factors, along with a shift away from Taoism to Confucianism and with it an emphasis on morality and philosophy instead of exploring the universe via inquiry also led to an environment that wasn’t conductive for scientific development.
The Chinese made a lot of discoveries, but they never had a fully-fledged formal scientific method that could unify all these discoveries and allow them to build on each other. Scientific discoveries were generally made in fits and starts, but that didn’t matter as the survival of Chinese civillisation didn’t depend on these.
The Chinese were comfortable, they could meet all of their challenges with existing methods.
In contrast, while European civillisation started out behind, the conditions were more conducive in the long term for development. European civillisation had a more open attitude towards innovation, which in part stemmed from environmental challenges that prompted them to find methods of overcoming them. For example, unlike the Chinese which had vast areas of lands to farm, Britan had to focus on maximising crop yields in what little space it had.
Also, European civillisation developed a fully-fledged formal scientific method and fully appreciated the advantages of technical advancement. Regional geopolitics probably also helped, with the various competing European powers working hard to outdo each other. The geography of Europe encouraged balkanisation which had multiple small states working hard to get ahead lest they be out-competed. Eventually they started looking out beyond Europe.
Welcome to the age of colonialism.
While all this was happening, China becoming even more inward looking. The Ming dynasty eventually banned all ocean-going voyages and burned one of the largest premodern ship fleets in the word. The Qing that replaced them weren’t all that less navel-gazing as well.
By the time of the 19th century, European civillisation had surpassed Asia. Those who were once considered barbarians were now more advanced and highly expansionist, moving into the East in an unstoppable tide of colonialism. Eventually Qing China would be brought to it’s knees in a series of humiliating wars, the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan forced to open it’s doors to the gunboat diplomacy of Commodore Perry, and India now ruled by the British Raj.
The West had truly surpassed the East.
History holds some interesting lessons for us. The superiority and ascendency of your civillisation is never assured, no matter how well you think you have things locked down. The various Chinese dynasties assumed they were the top dog of the world and that this condition would continue indefinitely. For a long time China was indeed the most advanced civillisation in the world.
But things change, other cultures who are more competitive will eventually overtake you if you aren’t working hard to be up to scratch. Cultures that are more innovative, aggressive and competitive will win against those who aren’t. Reality will give a rude shock to those who are navel-gazing and think they are exceptional just because they exist.
This also means that the eminence of the West is not assured, and by many measures they are losing the plot. Like historic China, they are becoming a victim of their own success.
Europe is screwing itself over with overly naive immigration policies. The majority of Americans are overweight and unfit. Westerners are no longer proud of Western culture, and the latest progressive fad is how to be sorry for being a White person.
Also, more importantly, the West has become less interested in actual science and innovation. STEM fields are being diluted by secondary concerns such as gender and ethnic quotas with much less concern over if real work is being done. Professors are being driven out of academia because they don’t support progressive ideology while snake-oil social theory liberal academics are filling it up. People are less interested in a rocket scientist making human history landing a probe on a comet and more of the shirt he is wearing offending them.
The West seems to have believed it’s own propaganda, and is actively working to hamstring itself. While the East faces it’s own set of challenges, it is working hard on developing and advancing.
Being an Asian that grew up in an ex-British colony, it is a bit sad to watch Western civillisation tear itself apart. While I root for Asian civillisation and the White folk did do some rather nasty things to us, the Western era has given us a lot of good things that we enjoy today. Give credit where it is due.
But if the degeneration of the West keeps up, it looks like the Asiasphere will be the one to carry mantle of top civillisation for humanity in the coming years. Civilisations rise and fall in cycles, we had our time in the sun and then the West took over, but it looks like our time might be coming again. One of the nice parts about this if it really happens is having the SPGs realise that they have invested in a depreciating stock.
So learn from the lessons of the West, both what they did right and what they are doing wrong now. Keep hustling and work on building things up for your tribe.