When people, especially those in the tech industry, think of China, what often comes to mind is this, either the country's astronomical growth over the past decade or the political environment that has created a very unique but hard to crack internet ecosystem. However, China’s influence on the development of the world spans centuries, well beyond these current topics of interest. Many of the most sophisticated mathematical, medical, scientific and construction applications have their origins in the ancient knowledge and teachings of the Chinese people. I've become curious about the history of China as I've started to spend more time learning the language and getting to know the people and culture.
Despite Its Remote Location, China Was the Driver of Intellectual and Cultural Thought
From the 14th to 18th centuries, China served as a well-spring of intellectual and cultural advancement for western nations. Many explorers, philosophers, and religious leaders traveled to China to learn, understand, and inculcate, and would return home with priceless teachings in philosophy, mathematics, engineering, science, and art. Marco Polo visited in the late 1200s, ultimately spending 20 years in China. When he returned home, he published his discoveries of the great wealth and wisdom that he found there. Jesuit priests traveled to China to learn the power of Chinese philosophy, most particularly Confucianism, which was later taught to the early leaders of Europe’s Enlightenment Movement, arriving ultimately even to the French Voltaire.
From the Renaissance until the late 18th century, Chinese art, particularly its porcelain ceramics, dominated the imaginations of western artists, as many strove to replicate these priceless artistic pieces. The pagoda became a fixture in elite castles in Europe, such as the Schonbrunn Palace and the residences of the Hapsburg monarchs.
Economic Influence Then and Now
During these centuries, China was a global economic power, accounting for around a third of the world’s GDP. It was a global leader in trade, with its inventions, products, and technologies moving across Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia, and Europe. China possessed the world’s largest fleet of commercial ships, and produced navigational tools and technologies adopted by mariners around the world.
It's quite interesting to see, once again, the rapid rise of China in the last quarter century. There is a great book that discusses the events and policies that have enabled this rise to take place so quickly and the impact that its had on the Chinese people. Age of Ambition, Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos, an acclaimed New Yorker writer is a must read for those who have an interest in modern China.
China has so much to offer both from an historical perspective as well as the innovation its bringing to the world today.