ABSTRACT

In assaying the prospects for technological development in the centuries to come, an informed observer of the early sixteenth century would most likely have looked to China as the most promising site for future progress. Chinese society had already manifested impressive levels of urbanization, entrepreneurship, managerial skill, and inventive ability. Demonstrating a striking promise of a modern economic order, China appeared to be poised on the threshold of a revolution in production. Yet the fruition did not come, and the following centuries of accelerated economic progress belonged to the West and not to China. The early promise was not fulfilled, and China as a civilization shared the fate of its peasants, who, in R. H. Tawney's famous summation, "ploughed with iron when Europe used wood, and continued to plough with it when Europe used steel." 1 By the nineteenth century, China's former technological lead served only to highlight the relative backwardness of a nation that proved pathetically incapable of resisting the aggressive intentions of more technologically advanced nations.