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A New Cycle of Civilization - A Comment on the Philosophy of Traditional Chinese Technology now hovering over the West

Liu Zuwei (Shanghai Jiao Tong University)

Humanism has dominated Chinese thought since the dawn of civilization. The enormous importance ancient Chinese attached to material production was unparalleled in any other ancient civilization. The Artificers' Record, compiled in -140, declares at the outset that the hundred crafts constitute a most important function of the state, and that "They have all been initiated and practised by sages." In Chinese legends, all earliest rulers were craftsmen of some kind. These profice an answer to Needham's question in 1969: "Why, between the first century B.C. and the 15th century A.D., Chinese civilization was much more efficient than occidental in applying human natural knowledge to practical human needs?"

However, in Confucianism, until recently the dominant school of thought in ancient China, the exploitation of natural resources and the ensurement of people's livelihood were made much less important than moral cultivation. This culminated in the intensional mentality in Chinese philosophy in which only a moral self-cultivated intellectual intuition was emphasized, at the expense of perceptive knowledge. This was directly opposed to the extensional mentality in Western philosophy since the Greek masters, in which logic and epistomology are stressed. In ancient China even Xun Zi, whose interest in Nature made him the "limit" within the Confucian School, drew a line between what to learn about Nature and what not. All that beyond practical human needs was ignored. Pure science was regarded as futile and worthless. In the 18th century, when Watt's steam engine triggered off the Industrial Revolution, the ultimate concern of the Chinese elite remained to be "Is it morally improving?" (N. Sivin: 1971). This answers Needham's other question in 1969: "Why modern science had not developed in Chinese civilization?"

It was the humanistic philosophy of technology that enabled China to lead the word for sixteen centuries in material production. Ancient China's civilization, as represented by the "Four Great Inventions", helped pave the way for the Renaissance in the West. It was the stubborn Chinese intensional mentality, interested only in das Ding fuer uns at the expense of das Ding an sich, that blocked China's way to science-based technology.

China's modernization, largely westernization, has been carried out at three levels: the instrumental, the institutional and the mental. The last is the most difficult. Confucians today, culgeling their brains, have hit upon an idea of self-negation (隊�腡许), though the correct approach is simply to be practical and realistic.

Yet the progressive dehumanization in Western technology has had a serious aftermath. So much so, that authors today like Mumford, Ellul and Heidegger, have jointly called for "relating technology to humanity".

Could Chinese humanism, one that professes a unity of man with Nature, be resorted to and counted upon as a remedy for the West?

Ancient Chinese civilization, disseminating via the Arab world, helped give birth to modern Europe. Leaping the Atlantic, it helped produce a new America. Crossing the Pacific, it promoted the growth of modern Japan. Now a new humanistic philosophy of technology, which is sure to borrow much from China, is again hovering over the West. Filled with a new spirit of reawakened mankind and prompted by synergetic attempts in both the East and the West, a new cycle of civilization will be complete in the 21st century.

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