China: How science made a superpower

Source: Nature

The opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing featured ancient China’s four great inventions: the compass, printing press, paper and gunpowder. The lesson on display, as taught in classrooms across the country that today publishes the most research papers, is that Chinese innovation in science and technology changed the world.

Yet less than a hundred years before, the Chinese philosopher Feng Youlan wrote the provocative essay ‘Why China Has No Science’1. The scholar — trained at Columbia University in New York City — argued that from antiquity, the nation’s philosophical traditions and unique understanding of the human relationship to nature had prevented the spirit of scientific inquiry from taking root. Feng, like many others at the time and since, urged that science was the only salvation for a nation in precipitous decline.

Placing the efforts to change the perceived lack of science in the context of China’s turbulent modern history is key to understanding how the nation arrived at its current superpower state. The red thread that runs through China’s past 150 years is its unwavering belief in science as the path to wealth and power. The entangled relationship between research and nationalism in China has obscured how this belief grew from a combination of foreign influence and Chinese adaptation2,3. Particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, the Chinese government tried to focus on home-grown science, and succeeded in areas such as agriculture and medicine. But in the longer view, the periods of greatest advancement were those when China opened to outside influence.