China: How science made a superpower


Shellen Wu traces the rise of the dominant force in science, in the second of a series of essays on the ways in which the past 150 years have shaped today’s research system.

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’. 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.

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